How to Hack Bad Habits For Good


Kids are buckled. Ignition is on. Playlist playing. And my wallet is tucked snuggly by my side. I reverse slowly out of my driveway, laughing with my daughter as she changes the lyrics to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” We’re on our way to my mom’s house for a morning of playtime while my oldest son is at school. The same home I grew up in, the route is now automatic. Unfortunately, so is the pitstop I make nearly every time I get in the car. Whether I’m actually in need of a coffee or not (and, I should ask, are we really ever in need of coffee?), I take a left turn at the light, lining up behind the cars at my favorite local coffee shop. Sure, I love the jolt. But, more than anything I love the ritual of a warm cup in my hand, something to sip on while I talk with my mom about life.

This all might not sound like a very big deal. In fact, it probably isn’t. But, when I look at my monthly budget and see those hundreds of dollars disappear in those cups (and when I think about what happens to those cups and unnecessary plastic once I’ve finished the last drop), I start to feel bad, almost guilty.

According to Patanjali, these bad habits, also known as samskaras, hold us back from living a life that is “full and free.” You can think of these automatic responses as ruts, tracks that we have made in our mind over time and that we are now stuck in. For me, the problem isn’t enjoying a cup of coffee now and again, it’s automatically going through the drive-through every time I get in my car, whether I have had five cups of coffee, whether I literally have a cup of coffee in my hand.

And this, of course, is just one easy-to-talk-about example of how samskaras manifest in my life. There are many more. As innocent as this example may seem, it’s telling of how powerful bad habits can be. Once they’re formed, it can feel like an uphill battle, sometimes an impossible one, to try to break them.


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Why Are Bad Habits So Hard To Break?

Humans are, by nature, creatures of habit. As much as we say we don’t, we actually crave routine. Or, maybe more accurate, are brains crave it. According to the psychologist Ian Newby-Clark, we need habits to get through the day. These automatic responses allow our brains to take a backseat, which can be a good thing when considering how many tasks we must perform each and every day.

But, because our brains are conditioned to create habits in order to “help” us, when bad ones are formed, it can be hard to tell your brain to change it. 

Where Do We Begin?

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you see that the idea of using self-reflection to become aware of bad habits is the first step:

“Samskara saksat karanat purvajati jnanam: Through sustained focus and meditation on our patterns, habits, and conditioning, we gain knowledge and understanding of our past and of how we can change the patterns that aren’t serving us to live more freely and fully. 

—Yoga Sutra III.18” 

Using self-reflection, or the concept of svadhyaya (self-study), you can bring your bad habits to light. For me, it was reflecting on my budget that made me aware of just how automatic my coffee runs had become. It was also those moments where the five dollar coffee I had just purchased sat in my car for the next several hours, untouched, because I really didn’t want it. Remember, meditation and self-reflection doesn’t have to happen cross-legged at your altar; it can happen (and should happen) spontaneously throughout your day.

As you begin to open the mind’s door and peek at those bad habits you’ve formed, it’s important to be gentle with yourself. You are not a bad person for having these habits. You’re human. It’s also important to not try to tackle everything at once. Go one step at a time, consciously aware of what you are working on and why you want to work on it.

That reason why will help you through the uphill struggle.

The Goal Isn’t To Eradicate Bad Habits

How many times have you become aware of a bad habit, resolving to cut it out of your life, only to find yourself back at it in a matter of weeks (or days)? This isn’t only completely normal, but it makes a lot of sense when you remind yourself that your brain is designed to form habits in an effort to help you.

When you try to get rid of a bad habit, your brain will fight you. It has worked hard to create a habit for you so that you can relax and focus on other, bigger, more important tasks and thoughts! As much as you try to eradicate the bad habit, your brain will try to help keep it preserved. And, if you’ve ever spent any time studying the brain, you understand how powerful it is.

Fighting your brain is not a battle you want to take on.

 So how do you get rid of bad habits if your brain is conditioned to keep them?

Let’s go back to that analogy of the rut. Although we are used to the negative connotation of the word (i.e. “I’m stuck in a rut”), ruts are actually useful at times. The word “groove” is actually very similar to rut, only it has a positive connotation in English (i.e. “I’ve found my groove”). Both ruts and grooves are useful when traveling along a road. Getting on a path that has been worn down can help you eliminate bumps along the way. In terms of cross country skiing, it’s always easier to follow a path that has already been created by skis rather than doing the hard work of cutting through the snow yourself.

Again, this is why your brain likes habits; it’s trying to help you make things easier.

The Goal Is To Replace Bad Habits With Good Ones

Rather than fighting your brain to erase bad habits, the trick is to create new habits instead. By giving your brain something else to habituate, you can effectively pull yourself out of one rut and place yourself in a new groove.

Here are three tricks to making the switch last:

  1. Identify why your bad habit formed in the first place. The self-reflection and meditation Patanjali talks about isn’t just important, it’s essential. By understanding why your bad habit formed, you can find ways to replace it that still satisfy your humanness. Although it’s sometimes obvious, many habits are deeply rooted in our being, which means it takes some digging and honest reflection in order to find the real cause. Do the work. It’s worth it.
  2. Understand why your bad habit isn’t desirable. In order to make any changes in your life, you have to have a good reason why. Saying you want to do something isn’t enough for your brain; you have to tell it specifically why it’s better. Write down your reason (or reasons) why and place them somewhere you can see every day, like by your bathroom mirror or in your car.
  3. Create a new habit that is physical and tangible. When we say to our brains, “I don’t want to do this bad habit anymore,” we’re not giving it anything else to turn into a new habit, which is why we so often fail. In order to really hack bad habits, you have to create a new, physical, tangible habit and then make a concerted effort to do it every day, or whenever the urge to do that bad habit comes back. When you identify why the habit formed and why you want to quit it, you gain insight into what your new habit needs to be. Use that information wisely and you’ll discover a new groove for yourself, one you can actually enjoy.

This morning I woke up and consciously made a huge pot of chai. I savored the aroma of the cardamom and anise, the fresh ginger as it made its way into the boiling water. Using a new travel mug I bought from my favorite store, I slowly poured the fresh chai, stirring in coconut milk and a healthy spoonful of maple syrup. Gathering up my babies, I took only my driver’s license and keys, leaving behind my wallet so that I wouldn’t be tempted to pull into that bad habit. I forced myself to not turn where I normally do, heading straight to my mom’s house.

No wasted plastic. No wasted money. This morning, and this chai, have never tasted better.

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