Breaking and Forming Habits

We all know that we will have built up some habits over the years that aren’t, necessarily, doing us any favours.  These habits get in the way of us achieving our goals, and could even be toxic to our well-being.

If we want to develop new good habits, we need to practise these, but to break the old bad habits we also need to practise not doing those.  But, this is easier said than done!!

Habits are hard to break because they are hard wired, well practised actions, that often bring about some sort of pleasure, which then releases chemicals in the brain, which makes you want to do it again. This is how addictions work – its chemical!


Do you know what your most damaging habits are? Could combating these bring about the biggest wins for you on your new healthy lifestyle journey?

  • Eating slices of bread and butter, or cheese, whilst making meals, because you are hungry.
  • Eating half a packet of chocolate digestives when you have a hot drink.
  • Automatically having a garlic bread on the table when you have a pasta dish.
  • Automatically reaching for a pudding once your evening meal is finished.

In order to break bad habits, Psychologists say that you need to actually identify those bad habits that you want to change – you will need to define that behaviour very specifically so that you can start to break down what is going on psychologically.  So, you need to have a really good look at what you do, and decide if this is something that is damaging and worth having a go at stopping.

Habit strategies

There are lots of things that we can do to help us break our old bad habits and form new ones.  Having done some research there are some psychological models that we can use to help us understand how habits are formed, and also how they are broken. And if we understand this then we can start to use different strategies to help form and break habits.

Cold turkey!

Some people are able to break habits by just deciding they are no longer going to do it! They no longer identify themselves as a person that does that. These are the ‘all or nothing people’, they are either doing something or they are not. We all know people like this, people who can just stop smoking or drinking, by going cold turkey. The reason this works for them is that they change their belief in who they are. They go from being a drinker, to a non-drinker, not a ‘drinker who is trying to cut down’. Psychologists recommend trying to frame up your thoughts and words differently if you are trying the cold turkey method.  Instead of saying ‘I can’t eat that’ or ‘I can’t do that’, use ‘I don’t eat that’ or ‘I don’t do that’. ‘I don’t’ is a much more positive phrase that fills you with confidence that you are in charge of your own destiny, rather than something beyond your control is putting a restriction on you.

Replacement strategies!

Some others are ‘replacers’.  They have to replace their bad habit with something else. This is a technique we often suggest, if people have compulsions to eat, particularly in the evening. We recommend replacing that activity by keeping yourself busy and taking up a new hobby, which will take your mind off your bad habit and keep you focussed on something that is a healthier new habit.

Small steps!

Slowly works for many but you have to be a patient person to do it this way. Small steps each time to gradually eradicate, or reduce, those habits that are stopping you from being successful. Some people might have such ingrained habits that they have to do it very gradually, unlearning old behaviours and practising new ones.

So, this might mean, reducing the number of biscuits you eat in one sitting, slowly, so that you are weaning yourself off. Or reducing the number of nights that you drink alcohol from 7 to 5, then 5 to 3, then 3 to 1, rather than stopping altogether.

Of course you may decide that stopping altogether isn’t something that you want to do, so you stop at a level that is acceptable to you and what you are trying to achieve.

The Three R’s

This technique is useful in trying to break habits and also in trying to form new ones.

The 3R’s are Reminder – Routine – Reward. This model basically suggests that everything we do is in a ‘habit loop’ of reminder, routine and reward.

  1. We experience a reminder to do something – e.g. our phone pings.
  2. We perform the routine – e.g. we pick our phone up to look at it.
  3. We experience the reward – e.g. we gain information or we are entertained by whatever we see on our phone screen.

Or what about we get up in the morning and start our morning ritual.

  1. Reminder: We wake up and our mouth feels grotty and we need a wee
  2. Routine: Straight to the bathroom, have a wee, wash hands and clean teeth
  3. Reward: The relief of no longer needing a wee and a fresh mouth

When we experience a pleasurable reward from following through from the reminder to the routine, the pleasure centres in the brain make you want to do it again, so the next time you experience that reminder you perform the routine that brought you the pleasurable reward. And the more we do it, the more it reinforces the pleasure in the activity, so the habit becomes deeper rooted or more established.

To establish or break routines we have to use these stages to either encourage or disrupt our behaviour and thought processes. What are your triggers or reminders to perform your habits? If you can interrupt these cycles, you can stop the habit from being performed.

What current habits do you have that you can attach new, good habits to? An example might be trying to drink more water.  What do you do currently, that you could add having a glass of water to the routine? Every time you boil the kettle? When you wake up in a morning? Before you eat a meal? Using current routines and habits is a great way to piggy back your new ones.

The 20 second rule

The 20 second rule is also useful.  Our brains naturally do things that we are well practised at, walking in the house and going straight to the fridge, or brewing up and foraging in the fridge when we get the milk out.

So, as we have said before, if we want to stop a bad habit, we need to interrupt the thought process that gets us to performing the routine.

Scientists and Psychologists reckon that as little as a 20 second interruption is enough to disrupt the habit loop, so another tactic would be to interrupt your bad habit with a reminder to perform your new one.

This principle was tested out by a Harvard ‘happiness researcher’ Shawn Achor.  He wanted to learn guitar, but he found that the 20 seconds it took him to go into his bedroom to get the guitar out of the closet and then get it out of the case was just too much hassle for him. So he removed that 20 second barrier by buying a guitar stand and leaving the guitar out in the living room of his apartment. This meant, when he saw the guitar, he actually picked it up and started practising.

Equally, when he wanted to break the habit of walking straight in the house after work, and jumping on the sofa, picking up the remote and pressing the power button to watch TV, he decided to remove the batteries from the remote and put them in another room. The bother of having to go and find the batteries meant that he stopped performing the ritual of sitting on the sofa and picking up the remote.

Achor’s theory focuses on breaking the habit (new or old) down into it’s smallest parts. Rather than focusing on the whole mentally draining activity of going to the gym, tracking your food all day, or having the will power to resist temptation of the fridge or the treat cupboard, you just need to focus on the start of the activity. Achor calls this ‘Activation energy’. Activation energy is the spark that catalyses a chain reaction.  It’s apparently an actual thing in physics! So why not apply it to your physical and mental energy – use this activation energy to kickstart a new routine, by focusing on the very first thing that you need to do to perform the routine, and make that as easy as possible, or make it as difficult as possible to perform in the case of a bad habit.


Other psychological theories look at triggers.  Find the trigger, and put in place an action plan to deal with that trigger in a different way and stop you fulfilling the habit.  Simple right?! If only!

Some psychologists believe triggers will fall into one of five categories:

  1. Location – you’re in a certain place, so you must do a certain thing. An example might be, you walk in from work starving, walk straight to the fridge and eat half the contents whilst making your tea. Another might be, you are in the car, so you must eat boiled sweets, or smoke cigarettes.   If location is your trigger, change the location. Can you be somewhere else? Or set a new rule for yourself, that in this location, you don’t do this any more?
  2. Time – its lunchtime, therefore you must eat. You might not be hungry, but it’s 12 o’clock, so its lunchtime, so you have to eat something. Or its Friday night, you must have an alcoholic drink. Stop before you open the fridge to get out the beer or the food, are you hungry? Do you really need a drink? Or, can you distract yourself with something else until the craving has gone? Can you fill your Friday evenings doing something else instead?
  3. Emotional State – you’re upset; therefore you must eat. You’ve had a rubbish day at work, fallen out with your partner, and the kids are being particularly challenging, so you’re going to the shop and you’re going to buy and eat three chocolate bars to make you feel better. Or you’re tired and its warm, so you must have a beer when you get in from work.  This is perhaps harder to deal with, as you need to find a new way to deal with these emotions. Could it be putting some upbeat music on, turning it up loud and singing your head off? Could it be having a nice hot shower, and a bit of a pamper, or a lie in the bath with some candles lit? Could it be going for a walk, or a run, or some sort of exercise?
  4. Other People – they cause you, or encourage you to do a particular thing – it’s just what you do when you are together. We all have those friends, with whom we get up to no good. We are bad influences on each other – those who one beer after work turns into a full-on night out, umpteen shots and a kebab on the way home.  Or perhaps less rock and roll might be, when we meet up we always go for a rich milky coffee and a cake.  Just because these are the people we do this with, it doesn’t mean we can’t see these people again if we want to change this habit.  But what we do need to do, is identify that if the activity you do with them is damaging for you, then it might be a good idea to make some suggestions of different activities, that are perhaps a little more aligned with your goals.  If they are your friend, I am sure they will understand and support you.
  5. An immediately preceding action – you’re having a cup of coffee, you must have a biscuit with it. This is perhaps a little simpler – you just have to find a way to stop the preceding action. Change your drink? Give up coffee – if you can?

It might be hard for you to define your trigger, so in these cases its recommended that you slow down. When you realise you are craving something, stop, slow down and work back through your actions and emotions that led you to the point you were craving something.

Once you have identified the triggers, you can start to do something about these. This will involve taking positive action, when you know your triggers are going to kick in.  It will be hard and it will be uncomfortable, but if you don’t change anything, then how can you ever expect anything to be any different.

Head in the right direction

There is no right or wrong way to break habits.  You must find what works for you.  You may find that you have used all of these tactics at some point through your life. But if you know you have a habit that needs breaking, why not have a go at one or a combination of these strategies to see if what works for you this time?

This week!

Have a look at those destructive habits, rituals and behaviours that you have.

Pick one! And work through developing a strategy to help you change that behaviour. You might need to try lots of different strategies until you eventually find the one that works for you. The most important thing is to keep trying.

2 replies on “Breaking and Forming Habits”

What brilliant researching, enjoyed reading it .
We are like “naughty “children who need help to modify our behaviour ,except we do not have tantrums, or unacceptable physical behaviours ,,,,,, we just can’t say no to food and drink and saying yes to making changes.
It’s good to know we are not a small group there are millions of us out there in the same boat BUT we have to keep trying ☘️?

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