The Easiest Way to Overcome Bad Habits

Do you have a bad habit you’d like to overcome? If so, you are not alone. Millions of people want to quit smoking, stop eating junk food, or give up their sedentary lifestyle.

Solitary Pin Oak Tree - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #2915208

Photo courtesy of ©

But attacking the problem head-on may not be the answer.

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The pin oak tree (quercus palustris for you budding dendrologists) provides a fitting metaphor. One feature of this tree is that it retains its leaves during the winter months. Though the leaves die in the fall, they remain attached to the oak’s branches until the new leaves appear in the spring and push the old ones off the branch.

You could, of course, remove these leaves by hand. But that is a time-consuming and pointless exercise. The leaves will come off on their own when the new growth appear in the spring.

Bad habits are similar. You can focus your attention on eliminating them. Or, you can focus on developing positive habits. As you do so, you will naturally—and more easily—remove the bad habits.

Psychologists refer to this as sublimation.

For example, you could focus on:

  • Eating tasty, fresh vegetables instead of eliminating junk food
  • Drinking eight glasses of water a day instead of cutting down on your coffee intake.
  • Complimenting your spouse instead of breaking your pattern of arguing
  • Reading more books instead of cutting down the time you spend surfing the Internet
  • Praying for what you need instead of worrying about what you don’t want
  • Intentional relaxing rather than smoking
  • Taking up hiking rather than changing your sedentary lifestyle

You get the idea.

The main point is to focus on building a good habit rather than eliminating a bad one.

Question: What good habits do you need to start building? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • agirlmanager

    I need to learn how to disconnect of my job when I’m not working. Maybe my big error is trying to not thinking about job, instead of thinking about anything else. You are a very clever guy… ;) Nice post!

  • Brandon

    True… great points here!

  • Justin Lukasavige

    Great point Michael. I’ve been coaching for a number of years and have always found it more effective to help people replace their bad habits with good ones rather than telling them to stop their bad habits cold turkey.

  • Chris

    I queue up pieces of your every morning; I love your ability to plainly state truth that for some reason I never noticed before.


  • Curtis Marshall

    Timely blog! I read an article in Fortune magazine yesterday about executive coaching. It highlighted the techniques and methods of Stephen Covey, David Allen, and Jim Loehr. The take-away for me was what I call “positive action.” There is no way to get anywhere unless you’re moving. Your car can’t even turn around without moving forward first. So it is with our goals.

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  • Todd Burkhalter

    Great reminder, thanks for the inspiration. This will be particularly relevant as many will begin making New Years Resolutions.

  • Kath Roberts

    Good old fashioned common sense but not always common practise. You’re right of course when we can focus on what we positively want to create we get to work with more purpose and passion and our bad habits fall away as we become more intentional with where we are going.Once I decided I wanted to be a better role model in every way I lost the interest in smoking but then again when I found my passion for what I wanted to do with my life then the stress fell away and so too the need for a cigarette to calm the nerves!

  • Amrita

    Dear Michael, Namaste from India. I am so fortunate to have discovered your excellent blog. I have a lot to learn from you. God bless you

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thank you, Amrita. And welcome!

  • Anonymous

    cleaning and house keeping

  • Keith Smith

    All things are possible through Christ who strengthens me. Thinking about what you are thinking about is key when it comes to changing bad habits for me. If I tell myself that I’m not smoking today then I’m setting myself up for failure, because I’m still focused on smoking. My brain simply drops the “not”. I don’t know why this is but it always seems to be this way. I used Romans 8 vs 6 to stop smoking. When I was able to put together that the craving physically was loss of peace mentally and spiritually and that God promised to give me peace if I give him control of my mind, I would pray and give God control over my mind and ask for the peace he promised. Then peace would come over me and I would no longer think about smoking. And I was free to think about other things.

  • Pat Wooldridge

    I like this concept. Following these suggestions will keep us positive, rather than feeling as though we’re depriving ourselves of whatever is a part of the bad habit. As with drinking much more water rather than cutting ‘way down on coffee. (The coffee-difficulty will pretty much take care of itself, as the new oak leaves take care of the old-oak-leaf problem at the proper time). Makes me think of the first part of the verse in Proverbs that says a merry heart does good like a medicine.

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  • Deneen

    I love your thoughts regarding habits. I also heard an interesting thought at church regarding habits. “People don’t decide their future. People decide their habits and their habits decide their future. ”

    I need to read as much as I surf the net!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Great quote. I like that.

  • Barry Kahan

    Enjoyed this. What I liked is it seems to focus on the fastest way towards success…..take action instead of inaction.

  • Jeff Randleman

    Wow. You really have a way of digging into my life. My habit (at least one of them) that I’m trying to build and develop is a more regular exercise routine. I’m about to turn 40, and I deal with borderline high blood pressure. Not looking forward to what the Dr will have to say on the next appointment about fitness, so I’m trying to start ahead of that.

    I joined a gym.

    That counts for something, right?

  • Georgiana

    What an excellent metaphor! It is extremely difficult to break bad habits once they become ingrained in our everyday routine. It takes both mental observation and physical application to replace the negative with a positive. I have found that if you can actually maintain the positive behavior consistently for an average of 30 days the negative behavior becomes part of your past and no longer occupies your present. :-)

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  • Angie Merrick

    I need the Word down deep in my bones. When I settle into it, I get God-help, not self-help. It’s the best. 

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  • Ian Gudger

    I really love your post! Thanks for sharing such an important idea and metaphor. I wrote a blog yesterday about this same topic and found your post to be one of the best out there in terms of solving this problem. Here is my blog post in case anyone is interested:

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  • AlanMeyers

    What a great word, the weird thing is that it actually works. That’s why I advocate seeking a better connection with God thru prayer more than trying to be a good person.

  • Queenmaureen47

    i want build a habit on talking to people gently and softly. i also want to build a habit on singing very well and self discipline

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  • DJ

    I have a habit of humming too much and my dad asks me why I’m doing it, but I don’t know. How can I overcome my habit?

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  • Eva Baaza

    praying..loving God once again, giving my time to people around,cleaning exercising, healthy eating

  • Michael McGreevy

    I have the bad habit of accomplishing my work in response to external pressures rather than a disciplined, daily, methodical approach. This was so insightful, thanks Michael!

  • Robin Dix

    I need to stop spending, so would I be looking for ways to save? Not sure

  • Joyce

    I agree that taking on new habits is the best way. And for me, committing to focusing on one new habit at a time is a habit I need to develop. I tend to take on way too many important things at a time, and pretty soon I find that none of them are getting done.

  • Melinda Todd

    Definitely need to be writing instead of surfing the net. I am easily distracted. squirrel! :) I have a potty mouth when I get angry. I’m not sure how to break that one! Trying really hard to keep myself in check so that I don’t get upset enough to reach that point. Easier said than done.

  • Debra Westbrook

    Great post. I have been thinking a lot about this also. It seems that whenever I make something a law unto myself, I end up thinking about it all the time, which defeats the purpose. Does not work. Focusing on developing good habits just allows them to be incorporated into my life over time. I like that and it feels great too.

  • Nancy

    I am a CBT trained counselor and I love what you just did there! Thank you for sharing, Michael..

    I used to hate to exercise and forget to drink water as I tend to get busy and frequently interrupted ….they seemed less appealing compared to sleeping and I didnt have time to monitor my fluid intake..but deep down I knew they were just excuses!

    Then I started swimming at the club and began to enjoy it so much that I joined their gym. Then I started thinking about how to max out my usage as it is not a pay per use. So I joined the dancing classes…and progressively moved on to yoga and pilates, which I now practise 4 times a week and attend gym about that often too. I feel good and managed to lose weight as well! Naturally I drink more water now and it has become an unconscious habit. Needless to say, I love this new me now and hope to try new things now that my brain is aware that I can overcome things I feared or disliked by having a different perspective. It’s like killing 2 or 3 birds with one stone! So, you are right.. It’s much better to focus on what we can do and love what we do…rather than being focused on our shortcomings, because, like sin-management, they only make us feel worse about ourselves and it derails us.

  • Dave Gullett

    Great post, Michael. However, I don’t get the relevance of the inline blurb for Brett’s book…even though its excellent. Such blurbs might be effective in getting clicks, but they break the flow of reading and “cheapen” the experience of reading your stuff.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for you input. Those links help pay to support the site.

      • Dave Gullett

        I understand. And I’m grateful that the ads let you share so much with all of us for free. I’m just questioning the placement of the ad. It might generate tons of clicks but it does so at the cost of readability.

        • Michael Hyatt

          Ah, okay, I see now.

          Yes, I stopped doing that after a short experiment for exactly that reason. Unfortunately, I didn’t remove the legacy code that is in those posts.

  • William Reed

    In 2014 I will focus more on my boys’ strengths and God given gifts instead of their quirks. I will laugh more with them. I am too serious a parent.

  • Michael Hyatt

    Cool idea, Andy. Thanks.

  • Tom Tonkin

    This is one area that I have much professional expertise. May I strongly suggest anyone that is truly struggling with a bad habit to read Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business’. It takes a look at habit from a neurological perspective and gives it a logical view. I won’t give it away, however, it decomposes a habit into smaller parts and helps us understand what we can do to. Very much inline with what you have outlined Michael. Thank you for allowing me to post.

  • Muhammad Nasir

    I am software developer, so all my time in my office goes in front of computer, thats ok. But when i come back to my flat, again I spend most of time using my laptop without doing some meaningful things. I have bought many books of different categories so i could spend some time without laptop but i am unable to do that. I want to improve my English writing but unable to do that because while sitting of laptop and focusing on work my most time goes checking emails, facebook, watching cricket etc. i want to get ride this habit and want to do some meaningful and valuable work.

  • Katie Neer

    Such great advice! I have had a terrible nail-biting habit since I was about 3 years old (I am now 31). I have tried EVERYTHING to quit. Sometimes I will let the nails grow, but I always end up failing again. This is incredibly frustrating because they hurt, and I am very self-conscious about the way they look. You’d think that would be enough to get me to stop!

  • Jenny Butler MD

    I quit drinking diet pop (soda) by turning my attention to trying to like green tea. It worked! No pop in more than 3 weeks!