How Habits Form and How to Break Bad Ones


If you think about it, we really are creatures of habit. Most of the time we are running on autopilot. We do the same tasks over and over, think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings. Whether it’s out of necessity, or by choice, whether it’s reactionary or accidental, we’ve created daily habits that have become ingrained into our brains and really impact our lives.

Think about how many things in your life are repetitive. How many times do you have the same thoughts, worries, fears, actions and emotions throughout the day? Now think about how many of those habits are unhealthy or counterproductive: mindlessly grabbing a drink after work, or mindlessly grabbing the phone throughout the day to scroll through social media. Or answering emails when you should be spending time with family. How about unconsciously reaching for another cookie or chip?

Many times, habits form as a direct result from the stress of the daily grind, or a traumatic experience at some point in life. Well guess what – habits can be changed, altered or broken down and overwritten. You can form new habits!

In order to change and improve our health and our lives we must first become more self-aware of our automatic habitual tendencies. We need to recognize our repetitive thoughts and actions, learn how these habits work and are formed. And then learn what we can do to break the bad ones and form good ones. 

In “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“, Charles Duhigg describes 3 components of habits, which he calls the habit loop:

The cue is what triggers the habit. The routine is the action that occurs in response to the cue. The reward is the feeling or emotion that results from the action. 

Habit Loop Example

The cue = stress

The routine = consuming sugar-filled foods

The reward = the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain

The result = sugar cravings, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems 

This certainly applied to me at one point in time, as it does to so many people. And eating sugar is not the only bad habit as a result of stress – there are countless others!

The first step to breaking this cycle is to become aware of the different components, eliminate the cue, and change the action that results from the cue. It’s ok if the new action elicits a similar positive emotional result.

In this example, the stress is the cue, so we want to eliminate the stress! I know, easier said than done. But, while you are working to eliminate the stress as a cue, when the stress does kick in and cause the routine, try replacing the cookies with a healthier sweet option, like fruit. Hide the cookies, throw them out, or lock them in the pantry. Eat the fruit instead and be proud that you interrupted the habit loop. Focus on how healthy you feel after eating the fruit, and it will be easier to do so in the future.

Apply this rationale to other habits in your life and start forming new, healthier ones. But first, be mindful of the cues in your life that are triggering the unhealthy habits and look to eliminate those.

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