Breaking Bad Habits With Devil’s Advocate

Breaking bad habits can be notoriously difficult.  Have you ever  wondered why it’s easier to develop bad habits than create good ones?

It’s easy to refuse your temptations when you start something new, but after a few days or weeks it’s hard to stay motivated. It obviously takes more than willpower to uproot bad habits. Luckily, there are plenty of tricks you can use to break your bad habits.

One of them is the Devil’s Advocate Technique I learned from David Burns.


The Devil’s Advocate technique is based on the idea that our unjustified positive thoughts make us give in to bad habits like overeating, procrastination and overspending.

When you tell yourselfThis little black dress makes me look gorgeous. It’s really no big deal if I buy it. I can live frugally till the next pay check”, you’re really engaging in denial and unfounded positive predictions of future and the like.

Devil’s Advocate is a role playing technique, so you need someone to play the role of the Devil. The devil’s task is to tempt you by telling you all the things you usually tell yourself when you are about to indulge in your bad habit. Your task is to argue against the Devil as convincingly as possible. If you can’t find anyone to role play with, you can play both roles yourself.

Example Of Devil’s Advocate Technique In Action

I’ve tried breaking my diet soda habit with little success, so I decided to give the Devil’s Advocate Technique a try. (Soda is pretty expensive in Finland, so it’s not just that it’s an unhealthy and useless habit. I could spend my money much better).

Below is a conversation between Devil and Self. I’m waiting for a commuter train, standing near a vending machine (typical situation for me).

Devil: Go ahead, buy a bottle of cold Pepsi. Just imagine how refreshing it’ll feel. It’s just what you need.
Self: Yes, it will be cold and refreshing, but the enjoyment lasts max 10 minutes. It’s not worth it. Besides, I promised I won’t drink diet Pepsi anymore.
Devil: One Pepsi is no big deal. You can go back to your “Pepsi diet” later.
Self: I know it doesn’t work that way. If I drink one Pepsi, I feel I’ve blown it and soon find myself drinking as much diet Pepsi as before.
Devil: I don’t understand why you deny yourself such a small thing. It’s not a big deal if you buy one now.
Self: It is to me. It makes no sense to spend money on colored water when you could invest in something you really want and need!
Devil: Well, you can do what you want but I think you’re going to feel horribly deprived.
Self: You’re just trying to make me give in. I may feel deprived but it won’t last very long.


I have found that playing this game makes me more determined to stick to good habits. The hard part is to remember to engage in this conversation when it’s most needed. Our thoughts are so fleeting and automatic that it’s hard to “catch” them in time.

P.S. Do you have any tricks for breaking bad habits that work for you? Mind telling them here?




  1. Very funny post! Your dialogue had me chuckling through the whole thing! Because-it’s so true!

    I think you’re right, Satu. We are about the same age and mindset, which is probably why we like each other’s blogs.

    Further, I also am addicted to Diet Pepsi. I used to drink 4 cans a day. The thing that stopped me was a t.v. show that explained that it is “Drano for teeth.” I don’t know if you have Drano in your country, but Drano is the acid you throw down the sink to melt the clog. The problem with soda pop is the acid on your teeth. Pop just eats your tooth enamel away. If you call it “Drano for teeth” every time you see it, you will not feel so much like having it. That has helped me. I want to be sexy at age 90 by still having my teeth!!

    However, I still am in complete denial about my snacking. So I will try your technique. It will probably help a lot and be amusing at the same time. 🙂 Marion

  2. Satu says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marion.

    Oh no, I may never be able to drink diet Pepsi again without having the smell of “Drano” in my nose. I may end giving up Pepsi all toghether 🙂

    It can’t be a coincidence that most people seem to like diet Pepsi. It IS better than Diet Coke.

  3. Gary says:

    Great post! Where did you get this devils advocate technique? I didn’t see it in the Feeling Good books I own. I’m dealing with binge eating so I can totally relate to your soda dilemma.


    • Satu says:

      Hi Gary! I have to say I don’t remember which book it’s from, but if it’s not in the Feeling Good books, it must be in the When panic attacks book. It’s a very useful book, and not really only for people that suffer from panic attacks.

      • Gary says:

        Hi Satu! I found it in the “when panic attacks” book. I tried it out and It works! Thanks for posting yours. It gave me the initial jump start to work on it 🙂

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