How to Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones: The Science of “Habit Management”

Few things are more difficult than kicking bad habits
or developing more positive ones. But it is definitely
worth the effort. Bad habits like smoking, overeating
or self-criticism shorten lives and lead to
underachievement, and unsuccessful attempts to
change them lower self-esteem.

In contrast, good habits create a kind of “success
auto-pilot,” leading to greater accomplishment with less
thought and less effort.

So how do you best eliminate bad habits and create
good ones? Research from the new field of “positive
psychology” – the scientific study of happy, successful
people – points to at least four proven techniques for
successful habit management.

1. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Completely
eliminating a habit is much harder than replacing it with
a more productive habit. Studies of people who
compulsively bite their fingernails have shown that it
is very difficult for them to completely give up their habit,
and much easier for them to substitute biting with the
more productive habit of grooming their nails.

Similarly, people who talk too much during
meetings struggle to become silent, but find it
much easier to replace their compulsive talking
with highly attentive listening.

2. Exercise. A habit of regular exercise is obviously
important for lasting weight loss. But you may not realize
that exercise helps in accomplishing a variety of goals, and
in eliminating a number of bad habits.

Frequent exercise helps break habits of overeating,
and in kicking all kinds of addictions, particularly if
exercise is substituted for an end-of-the-day cocktail
or cigarette. Among smokers who become competitive
runners, for example, over 80% give up smoking.

3. Reward success. The most fundamental law in all of
psychology is the “law of effect.” It simply states that
actions followed by rewards are strengthened and likely
to recur. Unfortunately, studies show that people rarely
use this technique when trying to change personal habits.
Dieters, for example, routinely overlook weeks of exercise
and restrained eating, only to let a single lapse “snowball”
into a total relapse and complete collapse.

Setting up formal or informal rewards for success
greatly increases your chances of transforming bad
habits into good ones, and is far more effective than
punishing yourself for bad habits or setbacks.

4. Schedule your bad habits. If you are really struggling to
kick a bad habit, try limiting the habit to a specific time and
place. If you are struggling to quit cigarettes, allow yourself
to smoke from 9-9:30pm, and only in an uncomfortable
“smoking stool.” When the urge to smoke strikes, tell
yourself that you’ll have plenty of time to smoke during
your pre-scheduled smoking period. Research and case
studies confirm that this rather unconventional approach
can be a useful first step in changing bad habits.

Copyright © 2004 Stephen Kraus, Ph.D.


The findings and recommendations in this article are
based on scientific research published in peer-reviewed
journals. For complete references, see Psychological
Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist
Separates the Science of Success from Self-Help
Snake Oil by Stephen Kraus, Ph.D.

About the Author

Success Scientist Dr. Stephen Kraus is author of Psychological
Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist Separates
the Science of Success from Self-Help Snake Oil. He was
recently featured in Conversations on Success, along with
Brian Tracy and Wally “Famous” Amos. Steve has a Ph.D. in
psychology from Harvard University. To contact him or
subscribe to his REAL Science of Success ezine, please visit

Dr. Stephen Kraus, Success Scientist