7 Breakthrough Steps to Stop Bad Habits

UPDATED: April 13, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 19, 2017
woman having feedback script chat with herself to stop bad habits

You want to stop procrastinating, running solely on adrenaline and getting defensive about criticism. You know these things hold you back. You don’t want to keep doing them. But how do you stop these bad habits?

Research shows that feedback might be able to help. A 2020 study published in PLOS ONE found that future-focused feedback may be more effective than past-focused—that is, “the more recipients feel the feedback focuses on next steps and future actions, the more they accept the feedback and the more they intend to act on it.” Not only that, but future-focused feedback may create a similarly positive reaction to both positive and negative feedback. 

Another study, this one published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that positive feedback has the potential to increase self-efficacy, and in turn, have “an indirect positive effect on performance quantity” via that relationship.

So what if you had a similar feedback conversation with yourself to stop bad habits?

Feedback conversations can be tough, whether you’re guiding other people or yourself. There is an art to them. To help you master that art, you can use a feedback script.

The script below is designed to draw your attention to your bad habits, facilitate deeper thinking about why those habits have taken root and inspire your commitment to new behavior.

For ease of use, the feedback script to stop bad habits is built on a simple acronym: INSPIRE.

I: Initiate

Initiate this feedback script conversation with yourself in a respectful manner. Yes, respectful. After all, when you need to bring up a tough issue with a colleague, do you just walk up to them and spit out your complaint? Of course not. This should be just as true with feedback you give yourself.

Don’t dump criticism on yourself when you aren’t in the headspace to use that feedback productively. Otherwise, you’re simply beating yourself up. And that doesn’t serve you.

Before you step into an honest conversation with yourself about bad habits you need to stop, consider the time of day, location and emotional state that would facilitate the best outcome. Give yourself that grace.

That said, be sure to not wait too long to talk to yourself about behaviors that hold you back from achieving what you want to achieve. Take the initiative to make room (intellectual, emotional and physical) for the feedback conversation as soon as possible after the undesirable behavior occurs.

N: Notice bad habits you want to stop

Share your concern or observation with yourself. State in clear terms what you observed yourself doing that is counterproductive to your life goals. Keep your observation to one observable behavior. Remember, this isn’t the time for a full-scale download of your every fault. Instead, focus on addressing one bad habit at a time.

For example, you could notice:

  • “I procrastinate.”
  • “I don’t get enough sleep.”
  • “I respond to criticism by getting defensive.”

S: Specific support

Provide specific supporting evidence you can actually see.

  • “I’ve had to renegotiate deadlines for my last three deliverables.”
  • “I drink coffee all day to get me through the workday.”
  • “People in my team aren’t offering feedback to me as often.”

P: Probe

After you describe the situation and present the evidence, give yourself a chance to respond. This might feel strange at first. But once you get the hang of it, opening up a dialogue using this feedback script with yourself will unleash insight into your habitual behavior you wouldn’t otherwise gain.

Suspend judgment of yourself. Calmly ask a question in a neutral, curious tone to allow information about your behavior to bubble up. Generally, asking yourself “What happens?” is adequate, allowing you to gain insight into what’s causing the bad habit. For example:

  • “What happens to cause me to procrastinate?”
  • “What happens to prevent me from getting enough sleep?”
  • “What happens to make me feel defensive?”

Quietly wait for your response. Let your subconscious form its thoughts and offer them up in a way you’ll understand and be able to act upon. If you give it time to work, your mind can surprise you.

I: Invite solutions to stop the bad habit

Invite yourself to solve the problem. You already know how to stop doing things that block your success and happiness. You just have to listen to yourself, trust yourself and have the courage to act on what you discover over the course of this conversation.

For example, you might learn:

  • “I procrastinate because I wait for inspiration to strike. Instead of waiting to start an important project until I receive some ‘hallelujah’ epiphany, I can trust myself to do good work by moving through projects one step at a time.”
  • “I don’t get enough sleep because I’ve trapped myself in a vicious cycle. Each morning I wake up tired, so I drink coffee all day, which prevents me from sleeping at night. I can break the cycle through limiting coffee, letting my body rest and unleashing my natural energy levels.”
  • “I get defensive when my ideas or work are criticized because I care deeply about my work. I want to be delivering top-shelf service to my company and team. Well, so does my team. We can all do that more effectively when I embrace others’ creative feedback instead of hardening against it.”

R: Review

Next, ask yourself two open-ended questions to crystalize how your life and work will change when you stop your bad habit:

  • “How would my results be better if I did this every time?”
  • “What concerns do I have about this approach?”

Then, ask one closed-ended question to secure your commitment to changing:

  • “Is this my commitment going forward?”

Then, review your specific commitment: 

  • “This is my recap of what I will do next time I face this choice…”

E: Enforce stopping the bad habit

Enforce the behavior and its importance to you. Reinforce your confidence that you can make this change happen in your life.

  • “It’s important to deliver projects when they’re due. Procrastination erodes the trust my clients have in me, and the trust I have in myself. I can begin starting projects well ahead of time.”
  • Getting enough sleep is critical to the continued well-being of my mind and body. Coffee (or any other stimulant) is not a substitute for sleep. I can give myself permission to be tired for a few days while my body adjusts and regulates its natural energy levels.”
  • Asking for and learning from criticism is essential to my development, both professionally and personally. I can begin seeking out constructive feedback at different stages of my work.”

Conclude the feedback script with: “I have every confidence that I can make this change in my life and remove this barrier to my success.”

Closing your conversation this way removes doubt about whether you’re up to the challenge of shedding your irritating habit. After all, of course you’re ready. Look at everything you’ve already accomplished.

This article was updated April 2023. Photo by simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

David Dye, Founder of Trailblaze, Inc., works with leaders to achieve transformational results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. As a former executive and elected official and nonprofit executive, he inspires audiences with practical leadership inspiration you can use right away. The award-winning author of The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, David is a sought-after leadership speaker and believes everyone can master the essentials of influence.