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Breaking Bad Habits

December 7, 2022
Mark Killick
Green neon sign saying habits to be made

Many chronic diseases can be prevented, significantly improved, or even completely reversed simply by making positive diet and lifestyle changes; in effect, ditching bad habits and replacing them with new ‘healthy’ ones.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just make healthier choices and enjoy the benefits, but how difficult is this in practice? Making changes is not easy, but it is possible. You just need to learn how habits form in the first place.

How do habits form in the first place?

A habit is any action that you do automatically and without thinking in response to certain cues in your environment, like cleaning your teeth or making a cup of tea first thing. You probably perform these habitual actions, without needing any extra motivation or mental energy to do so. You easily go through a complex series of actions; think about how many steps are really involved in cleaning your teeth, while your mind is on autopilot.

That’s because those habits are firmly ingrained in your brain through the cue-routine-reward process. Here’s how it works:

  • First, a cue triggers your brain’s pre-programmed response; this can be as simple as being in a particular room in your home at a specific time of day
  • Then, you move through the routine (the habit) that has been established
  • Finally, there is some reward that positively reinforces the habitual behaviour and further ingrains the habit.

Once a new pattern of behaviour becomes fully entrenched in your brain as a routine, you no longer need to feel motivated to take the action. You don’t even need to be fully aware of everything you’re doing; when you encounter the cue, the habit takes over.

In many cases, habits make our lives easier. Being able to get things done on mental autopilot frees up your mind for more important things. However, when our brains create negative routines, or when we’re looking for ways to change up our day-to-day, breaking those long-held habits becomes a challenge.

However, by working with your brain’s built-in cue-routine-reward system, you can replace your negative habits with positive ones. How can you do this?

1. Isolate the Cue

The cue is the thing that triggers you to perform your habit. It can be something internal, such as hunger or boredom, or external, such as walking through a doorway. The most powerful cues are also contextual, meaning that they happen about the same time and same place every day. The “context” can be an event (like the moment you arrive at work) or a certain time of day (like right after you finish dinner).

Other examples of cues include:

  • An alarm set to go off at the same time every day
  • Feeling hungry, stressed, bored, or negative
  • Entering or leaving your home
  • Sitting down to eat a meal
  • Getting in your car
  • Walking past a particular shop
  • The presence of other people

Before you can start changing up your routine, you need to know the cue that’s triggering your behaviour. To identify your cue, take note of the location, the time, your emotional state, and the immediate preceding action you engage in before you perform your unwanted habit.

2. Identify the Reward

The reward is especially crucial in the habit formation process. It positively reinforces the routine and etches the habit in your brain. The reward can be something as simple as the taste of your favourite food, a feeling of happiness or joy, or a sense of relief from stress. The important thing is that it’s something that you find intrinsically pleasurable—it’s something you crave, and it motivates you to continue your habit.

Before you can think up a new (healthier) routine, you need to know what reward your existing routine is providing. You’ll have a better chance of success if you replace your old habit with a new one that provides a similarly satisfying reward.

To identify your reward, pay attention next time you engage in your habit. What did you get out of it? What craving tends to set your routine into motion?

Sometimes, identifying your reward can get tricky. If you’re not sure what’s keeping your routine going, try deviating from your usual behaviour to see what else will satisfy your craving.

3. Try a New Routine

If you’re trying to break a long-held habit, you’ll need to actively interrupt your routine and replace it with a new one. To do that, you’ll need to try out different—more positive—routines to see what else might satisfy your craving and offer the reward you’re looking for.

Here’s an example of how it might work. Imagine you’d like to get more sleep at night, but your typical routine involves staying up late while staring at your tablet. Once you’ve identified the reward, say, the entertainment value? Or the chance to mentally switch off? You can then experiment with new routines that won’t disrupt your sleep. Reading a good book can satisfy your need for late-night entertainment, while listening to music or meditating can give your mind a chance to rest at the end of the day.

Changing your routine is difficult, but it’s important to stick with it. At first, you’ll have to make a conscious, motivated effort to switch up your habit. Over time, as your new routine becomes more deeply connected with the cue and reward, the process will become automatic, and you’ll have built a new healthier habit.