Breaking a bad habit? There’s one thing you should know first

Last updated on July 10th, 2016 at 01:37 pm

Bad habits. They’re those stubborn patterns of behaviour that you’ve started to engage in a little more often than you’d like. You’ve decided to do something about it and that’s great. I’m all for a proactivity spirit! But before you dive into trying to change your behaviour, you need to know one thing. It’s so worth your time because knowing this could save you a lot of hassle in the long run. After all, trial and error is a pretty long winded approach to changing behaviour!

Intrigued? Continue reading after the jump!


First off, what is your bad habit?

What exactly is it that you do that you want to change? It’s good to be on this clear from the start, so have a go at writing it out in plain English.

Good example: Drinking more than three cups of coffee a day

Bad example: Drinking too much coffee. (This example isn’t great because it’s not specific enough. How much coffee is too much?)

Now that’s sorted, let’s get started.



Why am I stuck in the bad habit rut?

If you’re doing something a little more often than you’d like, then the chances are that it is a learned behaviour. You continue to do your bad habit because you get something out of it that keeps you coming back for more. If you can work out exactly what the function of your bad habit is, then you can quickly replace it with a more desirable alternative behaviour.

To work out the function of your bad habit, you first need to take some data on about your habit. This will give you a more complete picture of the reason behind your behaviour. Trust me, it’s worth the time!

Q: But how do you go about taking data? It all sounds a bit complicated!

A: Think of taking data as similar to using a diary to write about your behaviour.

  • But instead of writing in prose, you use a clear structure to help you to really see what’s going on.
  • Instead Instead of making assumptions or interpretations in your dairy about why your habit is occurring, you just need to state what happened immediately before and after you did your bad habit. Including the time and place where things happened also helps too!
  • And instead of of writing it at the end of the day when your memory is a little fuzzy about the exact details, you write it as soon after doing your bad habit as possible. You don’t have to take data all day though ..…. a few set times during the day is fine!


Q: But is it really necessary to take data? I’ve already worked why I do my bad habit. I watch too much TV because I enjoy the programme. Simples!

A: The problem with thinking like this is that without taking some data to back your idea up, you have no proof to say that it is true. You might take some data and actually find that you watch so much TV because when you do, your partner/flatmate/family member spends more time with you! Or maybe when you watch TV at a certain time you avoid being asked to do the dishes. The bottom line is, data is useful because it doesn’t lie! You can argue with interpretations but you can’t argue with the facts!

Here’s an example of a complete data sheet to give you some inspiration.

DateTime and SettingWhat happened before the behaviour?Describe the behaviourWhat was the outcome of the behaviour?
06/02/20167.00pm In the flatAsked by Mille to help to do the dishesPersuaded her to come and watch an episode (or 4!) of Game of ThronesAvoided having to do the dishes tonight
07/02/201611.30am In the flatLooked at my 'to do' list and was reminded of that email that I really must send to Sam.Binge watched 3 episodes of Gogglebox.Avoided having to send the email (for now!)
07/02/20162.00pm In CostaCouldn't think of any new ideas halfway through writing a blog postWatched random Youtube videos for approx 30 minutes, then left to go home.Avoided having to write my blog post

And here’s a blank one so you can get started.

This is your chance to become your own behaviour detective! Own it!



Okay so you’ve been a star pupil and taken data on your bad habit over the course of a week. Good for you!

But how do you go about deciphering the function of (or reason behind) your behaviour from this info?

The good news is that there are only three main different functions of behaviour. They are…

Access: If you consistently get something that you enjoy after doing your bad habit, then the chances are that your behaviour is maintained by this immediate access to what you want. I.e. I do X and I get a caffeine rush from my morning coffee or I get to watch TV.

Side note: Technically there is an extra function of behaviour called Sensory. It is similar to access in that you do your behaviour in order to get something, but it is specifically related to one of the 5 senses i.e. a nice taste, smell, touch, sound or sight. I have only mentioned it here for the sake of providing info. Don’t get too caught up in working out whether your habit is maintained by sensory or access. They can overlap a lot, so if your in doubt, say it’s access! 

gimme frozen

Avoidance (or escape): If doing your “bad behaviour “ results in you getting out of something you should be doing, then it’s likely that your habit is maintained by this escape or avoidance of what you don’t want to do. I.e. I do X to avoid doing chores/studying/blogging/rehashing your CV/ exercising. Procrastination in a nutshell!
doing the dishes

Attention: If you usually get some sort of social interaction after doing your bad habit, then (you guessed it!) your behaviour is probably maintained by this immediate attention. I.e. I do X and someone pays attention to me in some way.

giphy (2)

Take a look in the “What is the outcome of your behaviour” section on your datasheet and see which outcome (or outcomes) are regularly occurring for you.

Hopefully this info has been useful in helping you to discover what is causing your bad habit to occur time and time again.

Now you’ve got this knowledge, it’s time to plan for action! Want some ideas on changing your bad habits into good ones? More on that next time 😉


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2 thoughts on “Breaking a bad habit? There’s one thing you should know first

  1. Hi Billy Bob, thank you for your comment! You could try using the note app on your phone and write the date and time, plus A)_____ B)_________ C)_________. Just fill in the blanks with A) what happened before you did your bad habit B) what exactly was your bad habit? and C) what did you notice after doing your bad habit.

    If it helps you could also abbreviate the words or phrases that you are writing more often. For example, writing ADD as a code for “Avoided doing the dishes”. Best of luck with concurring your bad habits!

  2. Hi
    This seams a great idea, can you know of any easy way to remember to record your data. Any apps that might help me?

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