Don’t break bad habits, build new ones!

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Habit Transformation

We are big on habits at Be Strong. You can ‘diet’ all you like, but unless you deal with the habits and rituals that you perform, once the will power runs out, you are still left with the old habits that will pull the rug out from under you once more.

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. Our strategy is to introduce and develop some new healthy habits, to leave little room for the old bad habits and hopefully eradicate them for good. However, we accept that we may still need strategies to break bad habits too.

Habits 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 habit and addiction works – its chemical!

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

Habit Strategies

To understand how to form or indeed break habits, we need to understand the psychology of habit formation.

Once we understand how habits are formed, or more specifically how your habits are formed we can work on forming new ones or breaking bad ones.

What habits do you have?

Some examples of bad habits might be:

  • 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.
  • Having a garlic bread on the table when you have a pasta dish.
  • Reaching for a pudding once your evening meal is finished.

Some examples of good habits might be:

  • Always having a glass of water with a meal
  • Checking your step count and making sure you hit 10000 steps a day before bed.
  • Writing down or recording what you eat, every time you eat something
  • Consciously eating your 5-a-day

The Three R’s of Habit Formation

The 3R’s of habit formation, are the three things that are present in almost every habit action.

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.

We experience a reminder to do something – e.g. our phone pings.
We perform the routine – e.g. we pick our phone up to look at it.
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.

Reminder: We wake up and our mouth feels grotty and we need a wee
Routine: Straight to the bathroom, have a wee, wash hands and clean teeth
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? What current habits do you have that you can attach new, good habits to? Can you interrupt bad habit cycles and stop habits being performed?

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. Equally if we want to start a habit we need to make performing the routine as easy as possible.

Scientists and Psychologists reckon that as little as a 20 second interruption is enough to disrupt or engage the habit loop. 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. 

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 could a location mean a new rule for yourself, that in this location, you now do a new habit?
  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. Can you flip this around? It’s Friday therefore I go to a spin class at 6pm? or it’s Monday, it’s my walk to work day?
  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 are bad influences on each other – those who one drink after work turns into a full-on night out 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? Or use preceding actions for the positive – I am eating, therefore I will write down or record what it is that I am eating.

To define a trigger it is 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 or feeling the urge to fulfill a habitual routine, until you identify what it was that ‘made you do it!’. If these routines are negative turn them on their head and fulfill the habit routine with a more positive behaviour.

Head in the right direction

There is no right or wrong way to break or build 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 to be introduced or eradicated, why not have a go at one or a combination of these strategies to see what works for you this time?

This week!

Have a look at the habits, rituals and behaviours that you have. Are they positive or negative? Could you use them to develop more beneficial habits and rituals, that are more aligned with your goals.

Pick just 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.

3 replies on “Don’t break bad habits, build new ones!”

I might be late replying to this but this film is awesome, hearing all about your trials and tribulations with habits is heart warming to know I’m going the right direction.
I’ve had success habit stacking, start with when making my porridge I do 10 counter push ups( these happened when I couldn’t do my 5 floor push-ups when I hurt my knee) , slowly this has now developed into before I put my porridge on I do my 10 counter push-ups, porridge in micro wave for 60s, when the digital counter gets to 30s I’m do a full arm plank( kept it up from the monthly challenge) stop when microwave beeps so I don’t need a timer, add raisins to porridge put on another 30s so drop down and do 5 full push-ups now my knee is improving then I drop 5 marbles into a pot as my reward then eat my porridge feeling good ?
I know want to work on getting time back from my devices and a walking / Jeffing ( sometime soon) in the morning before breakfast.
Rick and Rachel I’m so glad you’re working on getting time for yourself and happy for any replies at a time that fits for you. ????

I bloody love this article! Just what I need to kick my backside into gear. Don’t get me wrong since rejoining Be Strong I have been moving more and losing weight (albeit very slowly). But this article has reminded me that I do need a plan to sustain the good habits and to break the ones that are holding me back or sending me back on the yoyoing that has been in my life for 30 odd years. So thanks Rach and Rick. I am going to carry out all these suggestions starting with what I can do. 6 weeks till my next holiday and I WILL follow the advice in your article ?

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