How to Avoid Reverting to Bad Habits

It's extremely easy to fond yourself reverting to previous bad habits. However, by paying attention to certain external and internal signals, you can maintain a healthy lifestyle.
How to Avoid Reverting to Bad Habits
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 26 October, 2022

If you’ve ever tried to improve your lifestyle, you may have realized that it’s often harder to maintain a habit than to initially start adopting one. For example. with effort and motivation, you head toward certain goals but, when you least expect it, you find yourself staying up late, and reverting to a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet. We’ll give you some tips to prevent this from happening.

Habits don’t only relate to physical health. In fact, they involve any sequence of actions that have become automated and that you carry out without deliberation or conscious control. For instance, your attitudes, and the ways you normally think or feel can be considered as habits.

Changing your habits is complex. Often, your willpower and the motivation you feel at having obtained certain results aren’t enough to keep you on the right track. Understanding how your mind works may be the missing key.

Neural habits and activity

Many of the habits you adopt end up producing changes in your brain. Thus, a sequence of actions that constitutes a habit is reflected in a specific activation pattern that you ‘save’ as a whole.

Studies have proved that, when we acquire habits, there’s neuronal activity throughout the process. However, once automated, the brain is only activated at the beginning of the sequence and at the end. Somehow, it’s enough to ‘press the start key’ (ie the trigger appears) for the whole pattern to run to completion.

Even if you make a deliberate effort to change your habits, that prior learning remains dormant and can easily be reactivated. So there are certain measures you can take to avoid reverting to bad habits.

The habits we adopt can modify our brains.

How to avoid reverting to bad habits

If you’ve made significant progress in your attitudes or lifestyle and want to maintain it, here are some guidelines to help.

1. Identify critical moments

As we mentioned earlier, a well-established habit is launched from a triggering stimulus. This is a signal that triggers the activation of said habit. Even when you haven’t done it for a while, a signal can easily reactivate it. For this reason, you must pay attention to the critical moments that can act as triggers.

For example, if you’ve just managed to start exercising in the morning, whether you get up or set the alarm clock to snooze is important. That’s because the first of these actions will lead you to your new habit and the second to your old one. Or, if you tend to binge eat at night, going to the kitchen at a certain time might be a trigger. Alternatively, if you’re a social smoker, having a glass in your hand might automatically induce you to light up.

In understanding the triggers, you’ll be able to identify the critical moments, understand the warning signs, and be vigilant so as not to relapse. It’s at those moments that you must make the extra effort not to revert to your old habits. Taking the first step will trigger the good habit that you’ve acquired.

2. Pay attention to your emotions

Emotions are extremely important when it comes to relapses of any kind. This is because, as humans, we act based on cost and reward.

When you’re stable and feel good, you’re better able to focus on the long-term benefits and bear any current discomfort. However, if you’re sad, irritated, or unmotivated, you’re more likely to seek immediate gratification.

Your emotions may lead you to revert to the bad habit you gave up in an attempt to temporarily feel better. For this reason, you must learn to connect with how you feel and acquire tools that allow you to manage those feelings in a timely and more appropriate way.

3. Lead an orderly life

Finally, to avoid reverting back to bad habits, you need to understand that everything is part of a whole. Although you’re only focused on a certain aspect, the rest of your daily routine will tend to take you in one direction or another.

For example, staying up late might encourage you to give up exercise and return to your sedentary life. Or, living in a careless and disorganized environment might cause you to revert to your previous bad habits. Therefore, no matter what habit you’re trying to maintain, seek to lead an orderly and healthy lifestyle in all aspects.

Woman thinking about how easy it is to revert to bad habits
An orderly life directs your routine in a healthy direction.

Avoiding reverting to bad habits is a long-distance race

In short, try to keep in mind how easy it is to revert to a bad habit, and don’t let your guard down. That said, unfortunately, the functioning of your mind can work against you when it comes to trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, by knowing what’s happening, you can pay attention to certain signals and make sure you act in time.

Above all, if you do relapse, be compassionate with yourself and allow yourself to try again. With perseverance, your good habits will become more ingrained and you’ll find it easier to maintain them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Barnes, T. D., Kubota, Y., Hu, D., Jin, D. Z., & Graybiel, A. M. (2005). Activity of striatal neurons reflects dynamic encoding and recoding of procedural memories. Nature437(7062), 1158-1161.
  • Graybiel, A. M. (1995). Building action repertoires: memory and learning functions of the basal ganglia. Current opinion in neurobiology5(6), 733-741.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.