How to Break Bad Habits and Reach Your Goals Once and For All

I’ve talked before about writing SMART goals in order to get those New Year’s resolutions back on track. Funnily enough, writing goals is just the starter pistol going off. Time to put in the work.

Searching online for ways to actually achieve goals generally returns nice pages of Thomas Jefferson quotations and useless fluff articles about “following your passion” or “never giving up.”

Beautiful sentiments, but entirely unhelpful.

Think of goal achievement as breaking the bad habit of letting yourself become complacent with the status quo. Strategies for breaking bad habits provide much more support and direction than fluffy nonsense about “keeping your eye on the prize.”

Break the bad habit of NOT pursuing your goal, and you will succeed.


Identify your moments of weakness.


Believe him. His name is Instructor.

Willpower is a huge component of reaching your goals (and you can make it stronger!), so why would you choose to challenge yourself in your weakest moment?

The goal needs to be challenging, but the environment and timing should make it as easy as possible. Identify patterns in your own behavior; are there triggers that make you crave the bad habit? Whether it’s a certain time of day, a location, or peer pressure from a certain friend, simply acknowledging when you’re least likely to be on your best behavior gives you a starting point for the next step which is to…

Eliminate temptation.


And now I have mustard on my hand. OH MY HUMANITY!

So you realized you love blowing money on magazines at the grocery store? Congrats on the realization; time to remove temptation from the equation.

If you’re trying to save a buck, only bring the bucks to cover the necessities. Throw away your cigarettes. Don’t bring junk food into the house. Download an app that locks your phone when you’re moving more than 10 miles an hour, so you can’t talk or text while driving.

Building willpower is great, but removing the choice to be bad is foolproof.

But when do you brutally rip enticements out of your life?

Identify your moments of strength.


(c) Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

So you’re supposed to do brave things like toss cigarettes and leave the chocolate bars at the grocery store. When are these superhero acts of willpower supposed to take place?

In your moments of strength.

Do you feel particularly motivated to work out after you watch The Biggest Loser? Are you extra pumped to start looking for a new job after you get home from another dreary day at the office?

Those are the times you should be working on your goals.

Again, the goal should be challenging, but the time and place should be as easy as possible. If you want to get more done in the morning, but you’re a snooze button addict, move your alarm clock away from your bed, and force yourself to get up and turn it off. Leaving the snooze button within arm’s reach is enabling; make sure the motivated evening version of you protects the cranky morning edition.

Take advantage of the times that you’ve placed the highest value on achieving your goals, and ride the adrenaline rush all the way to success.

Replace a bad habit with a good one.


Okay, not the best example.

Okay, not the best example.

Even if you identify your moments of weakness and remove temptation and target your moments of strength to make a change, you may be just adding your new good habits on top of bad ones. Working out for thirty minutes in the morning is wiped out if you reward yourself with ice cream for breakfast.

Getting rid of bad habits leaves people antsy to fill their time with something else that gives them that rush.

(That’s how addictions are built, by the way. You get a dopamine brain bath any time you indulge in activities that make you happy. It’s technically possible to be addicted to anything that makes you happy.)

Why do you think people gain weight after they stop smoking? Sure, nicotine is an appetite suppressant and speeds up your metabolism a tiny bit. But most of the weight gain comes from the need to get that happy chemical rush again. Recent ex-smokers are used to having something in their mouth. Food replaces cigarettes, and 10% of ex-smokers end up gaining as much as 30 pounds.

When the crave hits, make sure you have a good habit in place to stop the mindless shoveling. Try mints or gum, which will keep your mouth occupied and reduce your appetite.

To succeed, have a new activity picked out as a new go-to when you find yourself wanting to fall back into bad habits. Figure out what your body or mind needs, and fill the need in the healthiest and most productive way possible.

Visually track your progress.


(c) xkcd by Randall Monroe

Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for becoming a better comedian is to write better jokes. To write better jokes, you need to write jokes every day.

Seinfeld marked his progress on a calendar with a big red X over every day he wrote a new joke. The goal wasn’t to release comedy albums or star on his own sitcom. It was simple: don’t break the chain.

Whether you’re a fan or not, Jerry Seinfeld is pretty much a billionaire. So he’s certainly onto something.

Visually tracking goals based on the number of times you made the right choices is a powerful way to stay motivated, especially for goals that take a while to see naturally such as running a marathon or fitting into old jeans.

If you want something a little more advanced than X’s on a calendar, try 42 goals (available in free and premium versions with a hilarious demo), Goals on Track (which includes a mobile app and a place to journal about your progress, iQuit (which tells you how much money you’re saving each minute you stay committed to being a nonsmoker), and stickK (which gives you the option of putting your money where your mouth is to keep yourself honest).

Have someone hold you accountable.


I don't always feel the need to drink but when I do, I call my sponsor immediately.

This is a guy you want in your corner. But maybe not as an AA sponsor.

If you’re building yourself an extrinsic incentive system (rewarding yourself for following your plan in addition to the natural benefits of following the plan), make sure someone else has the launch codes.

This strategy goes along with eliminating temptation; you take willpower to award extrinsic incentives out of your own hands. It’s easy to justify paying yourself that $5 for working out all week when you only made it to the gym twice, because it was finals week on American Idol, and you couldn’t bear to DVR it.

The stickK site mentioned above allows you to put yourself on your own payroll, and an outside referee (assigned by you) verifies your progress in order to release the money back to you. If not, the money goes to the friend, a charity you want to support, or a cause you hate (some serious motivation right there!).

StickK was developed by Yale University economics professor Dean Karlan and is based on research showing dieters with a financial incentive were five times more likely to reach their target than those without cash on the line.

When someone else is holding you accountable, weak justifications are rejected. Your incentive system becomes an objective reflection of your actions, not a representation of how well you can talk yourself into making an exception just this once.

Quick Recap


  • Identify your moments of weakness. Dodge them or schedule around them.
  • Eliminate temptation. Keep your bad habit behaviors out of reach, so taking an (appealing) step backwards is off the table.
  • Identify your moments of strength. Capitalize on the gung-ho attitude to make progress.
  • Replace a bad habit with a good one. Your body and mind have a need; find a healthy and productive way to meet it.
  • Visually track your goal. Seeing progress written down keeps you motivated when you’re not seeing the results elsewhere yet.
  • Have someone hold you accountable. Talking yourself into making exceptions is one thing; talking someone else into giving you a pass is much harder.

Do you have any other advice for reaching your goals and breaking bad habits? How have you broken bad habits? How did you deal with surprising obstacles that got in your way? Do you know of any more memes that could inspire readers? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

Image Credits
xkcd | Hyperbole and a Half

Jana Quinn

An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.


  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    Excellent post, Jana. I definitely needed a kick to get back in the swing of meeting some goals. Visual tracking was essential in me finishing a draft of my novel, but I didn’t make a plan or track my progress visually when I started editing…so that’s why I’ve fallen off the bandwagon there.

    Time to develop some good habits!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Mandy! I think visual tracking is one of the biggest components of staying motivated when the benefits of actual progress itself – saving money, losing weight, meeting someone – aren’t readily apparent. Even the illusion of progress is motivating to some people, so don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back for small victories! (Just don’t be willing to settle for only the small ones.)

  2. Bret Bonnet

    Do you these tricks have ANY change of improving my golf game?!?!? 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      All of them, actually. Do you have the discipline to be the next Tiger Woods?

      Oh, and before you can get to it, something something adultery joke something something.

  3. Rachel

    Great post, Jana! Concrete ways to change your bad habits are always good. 🙂 I think I’ve tried or at least thought about each of these strategies, and in many cases they have worked — otherwise it just boils down to me not wanting it enough, which you talked about in your last post on this subject. If only I could alter my bad habits without expending energy or effort … 🙁

    Thanks for this, Jana — hopefully it’ll get me motivated to make some changes!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Rachel! Too bad thinking about them isn’t more helpful. 😉 I think you hit it right on the head – you (meaning anyone) don’t work hard on things that you don’t want badly enough. The harder it is to get it, the more you need to want it to stay focused!

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