The Habits That Hold Us Back

“The only proper way to eliminate bad habits is to replace them with good ones.”

— Jerome Hines

Habits that are Holding Us Back

There are habits that hold us back. They get in the way of our productivity. They limit our time. And they deplete our energy. But, for some reason, we can’t seem to break free.

These habits confine us, like a prisoner to a cell. They clamp down on us with the force of a two-ton magnet and they don’t let go. They drown us in a sea of confusion and cloud us with a haze of constant and on-going distractions.

Know the kind of habits I’m talking about?

The habits that hold us back are the bad habits that we’ve developed over years and years of repetitive behavior, quite possibly over decades. They run the gamut from smoking, to excessive drinking, gambling, over-spending, procrastinating, or watching too much television.

But when the bad habits outweigh the good habits in our lives, it’s far harder to get ahead. It’s harder to push towards our goals, fulfill our wishes, and realize our wildest dreams.

If we want all of those good things in our lives, we have to eliminate the habits that hold us back. Sounds easy enough, right? But you know just how hard this can be.

We all want to make more money, lose weight, be productive, and enjoy healthy and fulfilling lifestyles, but these habits get in the way. They hold us back and stop us from living the life that we feel we truly deserve.

And if you’re anything like me, then you’ve had some serious issues with your habits. I used to be consumed by my bad habits, so I know just what it feels like. But I also know what it feels like to be free of them.

And, in order to make any substantial progress towards our goals, we have to rid ourselves of the bad habits and replace them with good habits, while ensuring that we don’t revert back to those old patterns and behaviors.

Where do we begin?

Identifying the Habits Holding Us Back

The first step in overcoming the habits that are holding us back is to identify them. If you were to think about it right now, you could probably come up with a long list of bad habits.

What are they? How have they consumed your life? How have they held you back from realizing your dreams?

Often, we know the bad habits that dictate our lives, but we have trouble admitting them to ourselves. By writing them down, they move out of the abstract and into reality.

Create a list of all your bad habits. Every last one of them. Then, next to each one, write down the length of time that you’ve engaged in that habit.

For example:

  1. Smoking 2 packs per day – 10 years
  2. Eating fast food & junk food – 15 years
  3. Excessively drinking – 5 years


Then, below each bad habit, write down the toll that it’s taken on your life. How much money, time, energy, or other resources did you lose because of those bad habits? How much have they held you back in life?

Often, we can’t extricate ourselves from the bad habits holding us back until we can realize some real and actualized toll they’ve been taking on our lives.

Identify the Bad Habit Triggers

The next step is to identify the triggers or cues. What has to happen for each of the bad habits to play back. What sets each of those habits that hold you back off into motion?

Each of us has a specific set of triggers or cues that help to indicate when a habit begins. Much like the bell ringing for Pavlov’s salivating dogs, your bad habits have triggers as well.

Triggers can be environmental – they can occur when you’re in a certain place, such as while driving your car on an empty stomach and having the sudden urge to head towards the closest fast food restaurant.

Triggers can also be time-based, occurring only at a certain time in the day, such as at 3pm when your stomach starts to grumble and you reach for that chocolate candy bar.

Triggers can also be event-based, in that they occur only after something else happens. For example, after eating a big meal, you might have the sudden urge to reach for a cigarette. The craving hits you when the food is finished.

And of curse, triggers can also be emotionally-driven, occurring when we experience a certain feeling such as loneliness, boredom, or fear, such as biting our nails, rummaging the fridge for unhealthy snacks, and so on.

Whatever your triggers are, you have to identify them so you can move them from your subconscious mind into the conscious mind.

Write down each of the triggers next to the amount of time you’ve been employing your bad habit. If you have multiple triggers, then write them all down.

Find Good Replacement Habits

Next, we have to find good replacement habits that can fill the void of our bad habits. In order to eliminate the bad habits that hold us back, we have to replace them with something.

Since most of the bad habits that hold us back are a product of boredom and stress, if we don’t find ample replacements, then we’ll easily revert back to our old patterns and ways.

Next to each of the bad habits that are holding you back, find and identify habits that you can replace them with. There are hundreds of good habits. Literally.

Your job is just to identify at least one or two good habits that can replace each of your bad habits. So, when it’s time for those bad habits to playback, we have something else to defer to.

For example, every time you reach for a cigarette, what else could you do? 10 pushups? 20 situps? Squeeze a stress ball?

While some of these might not be realistic all the time, especially when out in public or in an office, we have to find some good activity to replace the bad with. If your stomach is empty on the way home from work and you always get a craving for fast food, have a healthy snack on hand such as an apple or a banana to curb that desire.

And, instead of eating fast food, why not run for 5 minutes? Or, stop, and focus on your breathing, close your eyes, and picture your ideal bodyweight?

Focus on Keystone Habits

Keystone habits are those core habits that help to reinforce other good habits while also eliminating bad habits. One way to eliminate the habits that hold us back is to focus on keystone habit development.

Identify the keystone habits that you could integrate into your daily routine. Once these become commonplace, you’ll find other good habits falling in tow while the bad habits are eliminated. While it won’t happen overnight, it will eventually happen if you stay committed enough.

In a study conducted by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher over at the University College London, it was determined that habits take on average 66 days to form. They studied 96 people who performed one behavior for 12 weeks, and recorded the results.

Keystone habits also don’t take anymore work than regular good habits, but they provide far greater benefits. If you could focus on one thing to help eliminate the bad habits that hold you back, it would be to go after keystone habits.

Your job is to identify the right keystone habits in the right areas of your life that you could tackle first for the greatest source of improvement. But don’t try to do too much too fast. Focus on one keystone habit first, then move to the next one.

Start with Incremental Changes

Any type of change is hard. We’re creatures of habit, that much is certain. The biggest problem? Trying to do take on too much and getting frustrated when we fall short of our goals.

For that reason, you should start small and work on incremental changes. Don’t try to exercise for one hour per day straightaway if you’ve haven’t hit the gym in 10 years. Start small.

When you focus on incremental changes, you enjoy small wins and build momentum. That momentum helps to bring on more progress.

For example, instead of starting with a 30-minute exercise keystone habit, start with a 5 minute walk every morning. All you have to do is promise yourself to walk for 5 minutes, no more than that. It’s too small to fail.

Everyone has at least 5 minutes in the morning to walk. And it’s a goal that you won’t give up on, because it’s too simple. But what you’ll notice over time is that the 5 minutes will turn into something far greater. You’ll experience the snowball effect.

The snowball effect is something that starts small, even infinitesimally small, and builds significance over time, just like a snowball rolling down the side of a mountain. Habits work the same way. Any habit builds momentum over time.

The habits that you have today are a product of years of repetitive behavior, some the product of a decade or more, and some, quite possibly, the product of a lifetime of repetition. But they didn’t start out as full-blown habits They started small.

Focus on the small, yet incremental changes, and watch how you can create any big habit over time or eliminate any habit that holds you back.

Create Reminders & Notes

Often, it’s easy to get sidetracked when we’re developing a habit or trying to eliminate one. Setting reminders and notes is a great way to stay on track. If you know that you do something at a particular time, set a reminder before hand to help fend it off.

In the example of being hungry on the way home from work, set a reminder or an alarm on your phone to eat a snack 15 minutes before you leave to fend off that craving. Then, when you get home, cook up a healthy meal right away.

The less you have to think about it, the better it will be, otherwise you’ll revert to your old patterns of behavior. The reminders and notes are just a way to help keep us on track, but you have to follow through.

There are also great smartphone apps that you could use to help remind you to do things at certain points in the day in your habit development. Find some system that works for you and work it.

Track Your Progress

If you really want to eliminate the habits that are holding you back, track your progress. Jot down your commitments, and keep a log of how much you follow through each day. If you promised 5 minutes of walking, did you follow through? How many minutes did you walk each day?

Tracking is a great way to chart your progress towards any goal, and works great with habit development. All you need is a system to track and to stay committed to follow through with your efforts.

Whether you use a classic notepad, an app on your phone, or a spreadsheet on your computer, get organized and track your results. You could even chart your progress with graphs if you use spreadsheet software on your desktop.

Whatever works for you, might not work for someone else. Your job is to identify and create a system and to continually work it until you begin reaping the results that you’re after.

Don’t Give Up

It sounds corny, I know. But giving up shouldn’t be an option. If you set strong enough goals, and they have deep-enough reasons behind them, giving up will be harder to do.

If your bad habits are holding you back from accomplishing your goals, then you should be able to clearly see that and ensure that you do everything in your power to follow through.

If you have to, revert to inspirational material, but keep your goals at the forefront of your mind along with the reasons you want to achieve them. Watch a motivational video on YouTube, a TED Talk, or listen to an audiobook to keep you going.

Do whatever it takes to eliminate the bad habits that hold you back while building up good habits that will push you forward.