habit vs addiction: what’s the difference?

Are your daily routines just habits or something more concerning? Can a habit turn into an addiction, and how can you tell the difference? With 1 in 10 accountants sharing with us that their drinking habits have negatively impacted their life, we explore the distinction between a habit and an addiction...

In association with our partner psychologists, Psych Health.

Have you ever noticed that there are certain things you do without even thinking about them? Like brushing your teeth before bed or grabbing a snack when you feel hungry? Those are some examples of habits.

But can a habit turn into something more serious, like an addiction? And is it always possible to tell the difference? Let’s take a look.

what is a habit?

A habit is a behaviour or action you do regularly, often unconsciously, resulting from repeated actions or experiences. When you do something repeatedly, your brain starts forming pathways that make that action easier. Eventually, it becomes automatic and you no longer have to think about it.
Habits can be good or bad, depending on what the behaviour is.

For example, exercising regularly or eating healthy foods are good habits that can improve your health and wellbeing. On the other hand, social smoking or biting your nails are bad habits that can negatively affect your health or appearance.

The good news is that you can change your habits. Of course, it will take effort and consistency, but you can break bad habits through practice. So, whether you want to start exercising more, eat a balanced diet, or quit smoking socially, there is always time to begin forming new habits that will benefit you in the long run.

can bad habits lead to addiction?

Habits can be a pathway to addiction. So, it’s important to assess your behaviours or substance use honestly to understand whether it’s a habit you can withhold or possibly something more serious.

You may find it helpful to ask yourself:

where are you when you feel tempted?

This could be online, which is a gateway to many addictive behaviours, or the company of certain people who help support an unhealthy habit. Does it no longer matter where you are? If so, this could be a sign of an addiction.

when are you likely to engage in this?

Look for your triggers of certain behaviours. For example, an argument with family members or additional stress at work. Understanding your triggers will help you to avoid them in future.

what is the cost of your actions?

Reflect on the personal cost of your unhealthy habits, like time, money, relationships, missed opportunities, as well as the behaviour's effect on the people and world around you. Is it worth it?

what are you achieving with this activity or behaviour?

This could be relaxation, to prove a point, or to escape from your struggles and complicated feelings such as anxiety, loneliness, or boredom.

Once you notice why you formed a bad habit, you can find a healthy substitute to replace them.

how do you justify this to yourself?

Be honest with yourself and think about whether your answer is rational or irrational.

can you stop the behaviour or activity?

If this is a bad habit, you may feel that you do not want to stop, but if you had to, could you quit?

how do I stop a bad habit?

Think of what motivates you to succeed. Is it rewards? Viewing your progress on a chart or map? To break bad habits, the process must be personalised to you. 

here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  • image boards
  • reminders around your home or on your phone
  • apps to track change or create a progress chart
  • save the money in a jar you might've spent on a bad habit
  • reward yourself with the saved money or when you hit a different goal throughout your process
  • set up blockers - freezing that credit card or avoiding the pub
  • confide with a family member or friend to check in on your progress

Remember, you might make mistakes when trying to break bad habits, but don't be hard on yourself or lose hope. You will get there.

how can mindfulness help with bad habits?

There are plenty of benefits to practising daily mindfulness, and it isn't just about relaxation but also about building awareness of ourselves. So often, habits are routine, and we do them mindlessly. Your growing awareness will help you catch the patterns earlier and take steps to prevent the bad habits.

Mindfulness can also support you in diverting your attention, like fitness or creating art. With habits, our choices will be biased toward the favoured behaviour, as our brains love the shortcut. To break bad habits, you want to override that response and refocus your attention on a healthy habit you enjoy.

Are you feeling worried that an existing habit might be developing into an addiction? 

If you’re looking for support in overcoming addiction, read our in-depth guide below.


further reading 

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what are the causes of addiction

Discover the complex and varied causes behind addictive behaviour, from psychological factors to environmental triggers, and learn how habits can escalate into addiction.

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habit vs addiction: what’s the difference?

Are your daily routines just habits or something more concerning? Can a habit turn into an addiction, and how can you tell the difference? With 1 in 10 accountants sharing with us that their drinking habits have negatively impacted their life, we explore the distinction between a habit and an addiction...

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how to support a loved one suffering from addiction

Being part of someone’s support network is incredibly brave and thoughtful, but we understand this can have challenging effects on your own health. We’re here to help you navigate your emotions and recognise that looking after yourself is just as important as helping someone you care about.

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understanding addiction: how to overcome it

Addiction is a difficult journey, but it's not impossible to overcome. In this article, we'll explore where to find help and the steps you can take to recover from addiction.

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your questions answered 

Who is eligible for support?

We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

  1. No matter where your career takes you, past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England Wales (ICAEW) are eligible for caba’s services for life, even if you change your career and leave accountancy 
  2. ACA students (ICAEW Provisional Members) who are either an active student or have been an active student within the last three years are eligible for caba's services 
  3. Past and present staff members of the ICAEW or caba are eligible for caba's services for life, even if you leave either organisation. Please note, for former employees, our financial support is only available to those who have had five years continuous employment with either organisation 
  4. Family members and carers of either an eligible past or present ICAEW member, ACA student or past or present employee of the ICAEW or caba are eligible for caba's support. We define a family member as a: 
    1. spouse, civil partner or cohabiting partner 
    2. widow, widower or surviving civil partner who has not remarried or cohabiting with a partner 
    3. divorced spouse or civil partner who has not remarried or cohabiting with a partner 
    4. child aged up to 25. Please note, children aged between 16 and 25 are not eligible for individual financial support 
    5. any other person who is dependent on the eligible individual supporting them financially or are reliant on the eligible individual’s care 
    6. any other person on whom the eligible individual is reliant, either financially or for care 

You can find out more about our available support both in the UK and around the world on our support we offer  page. 

Are your services means-tested?

If you need financial support, we carry out a means test where we consider income, expenditure, capital and assets.  

*Please note none of our other services are means-tested. 

I’m an accountant, but not a member of ICAEW, can you still help?

Unfortunately not. We only support past and present ICAEW members, their carers and their families. If we are unable to support you, where possible we will point you to help elsewhere.

caba has supported me in the past; can I receive support from caba again?

We understand that circumstances change. If we’ve helped you in the past there’s no reason why we can’t help you again. You can contact us at any time. Please call us if you need our help.

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