How do you change bad habits?

How do you change bad habits and replace them with good ones?

This is an interesting question, and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the years.

As a personal trainer I’m always chatting with clients about change.

I’ve discovered over the years people respond differently to all sorts of things, but the overall system for changing old habits/creating new habits is the same from person to person.

What is a habit?


Before we dive into this rabbit hole, let’s quickly define what a habit is.

Habit→ A regular routine (or activity) that occurs without much thinking or effort.

For example: The first couple times you get on a bicycle will be awkward. You’ll probably be swerving all over the place, and you may even fall a few times and scrape your knee.

But, after some practice your brain learns, and creates the “bicycle riding habit”. Once you learn and develop that habit even if you don’t ride a bike for years, you can always jump back on without much effort.

But why is this? Why do humans form habits in the first place?

Why do humans form habits?

Disclaimer: Ok, first of all I’m not a neurological researcher. The words that follow are my interpretation from studying habit formation for close to a decade. However, I’ve seen these habit changes occur many times in real life with my personal training clients; which leads me to believe that the system is sound.

Alright, now that we have that out of the way lets keep going.

Why do humans form habits in the first place?

I mean, what are they used for?

In short, habits seem to be created because they are efficient. They are brain’s way of remembering how to perform many tasks (ranging from simple to complex) without much thinking.

Why is efficiency important?

In the early days of humans, habits formed as a survival mechanism. People quickly learned that if they saw a sabertooth tiger they should run—really fast.

From a survival standpoint, it seems wildly inefficient if people had to constantly remind themselves what to do when they encountered that sabertooth tiger. I mean, what if their reaction went like this:

• Step 1- I see the tiger sprinting toward me at a high rate of speed
• Step 2- I probably should run
• Step 3- I’m turning around to run
• Step 4- I’m telling my legs to run, but it may be a little too late…

Without the ability to develop habits, and react with lightning speed to threats, humans likely wouldn’t have survived very long.

Fast forward to present day.

While most folks these days aren’t in danger of being eaten by a sabertooth tiger forming habits is still a huge part of everyday life. Remember, the brain is looking for the most efficient way to do things, which is why life is made of hundreds or thousands of tiny habits that a person does (almost) automatically.

And, as habits form and become more automatic, brain activity decreases to minimum levels.

Thinking back to the bike example, when you first learn to ride a bike it takes a lot of concentration. The reason is that your brain hasn’t fully developed that neurological pathway.

After some practice though you can ride that same bike without really thinking about it at all. Heck, you can even ride a bike while talking to a friend, or without holding onto the handle bars.

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How do humans form habits?

It’s interesting to learn about “why” humans form habits, but in my past experience understanding “how” humans form habits has been the catalyst for changing them.

I first heard about the concept of a habit loop while reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

It’s a fascinating book, which takes a super deep dive into habits. I highly recommend reading it.

In his book Mr. Duhigg explains the concept of a three-step habit loop like this:

  1. Cue→ Tells the brain which habit to use
  2. Routine→ Physical action, mental thought, or emotional reaction which occur automatically
  3. Reward→ Tells the brain if that particular habit is worth remembering

To change a habit loop you need to become aware of the cue (or craving) which is causing a particular behavior. The que triggers a behavior, which sets in motion a routine, thus leading to the particular reward from using that habit loop.

How I used the habit loop to change my monster energy drink habit…

When I was in the Army I would drink 2–4 sugar free monster energy drinks per day. Clearly this wasn’t good for my health, or my bank account.

Even though I knew drinking that many monster energy drinks wasn’t great for my health, I didn’t know how to stop drinking them.

I felt like I was drinking them almost without thinking. Somehow drinking monster energy drinks had become a habit for me.

But, it was a habit that I wanted to change…

After I learned more about the habit loop I was able to ID the cue which was causing my monster energy drink craving.

See, there were vending machines placed outside every door to all the buildings. I realized that every time I walked past a vending machine I would unconsciously stop, pull out my credit card, and buy a monster energy drink. Rinse and repeat multiple times per day.

So, my monster energy habit loop looked something like this:

  • The que→ Walking past a vending machine filled with monster energy drinks
  • The routine→ Stopping, pulling out my credit card, and swiping
  • My reward→ Tasting the fizzy carbonation of the drink

Wait a minute…

Tasting that fizzy carbonation. That was it.

That was the reward I was craving.

After I spent some time examining that habit loop I realized I wasn’t buying monster energy drinks because I actually wanted the caffeine. I was buying them because I enjoyed the fizzy carbonation sensation that came with them.

Once I realized what was triggering my habit loop it was easy to stop drinking monster energy drinks.

I simply started bringing sparkling waters to work each day.

Every time I walked past a vending machine and got a craving for a monster energy drink, I would wait and drink a sparkling water instead.

I knew that I would soon be rewarded with that same fizzy carbonation feeling; just without all the chemicals and caffeine.

I was able to change my habit loop by slightly changing my routine. The que was the same (walking past vending machines with monster energy drinks) and the reward was the same (getting that fizzy carbonation), but the routine was different.

So, how can YOU can start to change your habits?

Lets find out.

A road map to help you develop habits (especially early on)

So, I think the above was a necessary lead-in to your question of, “How does one avoid the initial resistance/discomfort while developing a new habit in order to keep going?”

Again, the following is just my opinion, but I have used this approach to successfully help a lot of my personal training clients change bad habits for better ones.

So, take that for what you will.

To avoid the initial resistance of habit change/development I think it’s necessary to first clearly define the reward.

It’s no secret that humans are motivated by pleasure and pain. I don’t suggest creating a painful reward for developing a habit. That’s sort of the opposite direction from where you want to go. So, that leaves you with pleasure.

What pleasurable/enjoyable sensation will you get from developing this habit?

In the exercise world the pleasurable reward can range from getting that rush of endorphines (feel good chemicals) after a tough workout to a sense of accomplishment to easily being able to slide into a tight pair of jeans.

The actual reward varies from person to person and depends on what motivates them.

So, step # 1→ figure out your pleasurable reward from developing a certain habit.

Once you know what your pleasurable reward is, you need to start developing a routine to make whatever you’re doing become a habit.

Remember, this will take time and practice.

But, how do you start developing your routine?

By using a que(s) which tell your brain it’s time to use a certain habit loop. In my monster energy drink example my que was walking past the vending machines.

If you’re trying to get into the habit of exercising everyday, you could lay your workout clothes out the night before.

  • The que→ waking up and seeing the workout clothes already laid out
  • The routine→ put the clothes on, and go workout
  • Your reward→ getting that rush of endorphins

If you’re trying to get into the habit of writing a blog post every morning before you go to work, the habit loop could look something like this:

  • The que→ waking up and making coffee first thing in the morning
  • The routine→ while the coffee is brewing turn on your computer, fire up Microsoft word, and type the title of your blog article. Once the coffee is done brewing type for 30 minutes, while you slowly drink and enjoy it
  • Your reward→ feeling a sense of accomplishment from finishing a blog article, all while enjoying a delightful cup of coffee

Final thoughts about how to change bad habits

Just to quickly recap the three-step habit loop:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

To begin developing (or changing) your own habits, it’s important to first identify the pleasurable reward that you’ll get from that habit. That way you know you know what enjoyable sensation awaits you, which will make it easier to stay the course when the going gets tough.

Developing a routine (aka…a habit) starts with a que(s) which tell your brain it’s time to use a certain habit loop. Ingraining behaviors into habits takes some time and persistence.

Stay the course and don’t give up.

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