How to Make Healthy Habits that Stick

Making Healthy Habits

How to Make Healthy Habits that Stick

Would you like to develop better habits?
Do you ever commit to a new habit only to revert to your old ways?
Do you want to know the secret to making habits that stick?

Scientists have discovered that habits are formed and operated in a part of the brain that is separate from memory. Tests have shown that we make choices not based on memory recall, but on routine. Taking a shower, for example, requires our brain to make a dozen individual choices but rarely do we make them consciously. Instead, the routine is so familiar to us that we go into autopilot mode and step out squeaky clean a few minutes later.

According to author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Charles Duhigg, in his 2012 New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit, habits are formed by a 3-step process called a Habit Loop.

Habit Loop: Cue => Routine => Reward1

Let’s take brushing our teeth.
Cue: We just woke or we are about to go to sleep.
Routine: Go to the sink, load toothbrush with toothpaste, brush teeth, rinse
Reward: Clean teeth, fresh breath, whiter smile, prevent tooth decay, reduced chance of an unpleasant dental check-up, etc.


The old axiom, “how to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one” still applies, but only if the new routine is successfully created with the same cue and the same reward. Only by changing the routine will the new “good” habit stick.

Let’s look at changing eating habits.

Cue: Craving for sweets. Look at what the sweets are fulfilling — that’s the reward (for example, a feeling of pleasure or delight, a way to take a break, escape or relax)
New Routine: Reduce (or even abstain) from sugar consumption
Same Reward: Pleasure, delight, relaxation, fun BUT now it’s through a new activity or hobby like playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, or socializing with friends.
But to keep us from falling off the wagon, there is one more essential element required: belief.

With brushing our teeth, it’s believing in the science that supports oral hygiene or valuing the esthetics of clean teeth (believing it’s a better way to look).
With eating habits, it’s believing in the health benefits of consuming less sugar or feeling physically better and mentally clearer (believing the new reward is better than the old).

Now let’s apply this “Habit Loop” concept to stress and anxiety.

1) The first step to changing a habit is to identify the routine. What’s the behavior you want to change?
When there is a looming work deadline do you lose sleep?
Did a medical diagnosis make you depressed and have you isolate yourself?
When you are struggling with a personal relationship do you get critical?

2) Next, we want to experiment with rewards so that we can pinpoint the cue.
If the current reward for putting off a work project, is checking emails or helping out a colleague, try delaying the new reward each time you feel like doing the old action. Try writing that sales report for 15 minutes (it’s recommended to set a timer) before checking your emails.

If isolating yourself keeps you from answering uncomfortable questions about your medical condition, try joining new groups where you don’t know anyone but you can practice a hobby like dancing, knitting or pickleball – something you’ve been meaning to try but have put off.

If you feel like yelling at your spouse for not helping with the housework, try taking a walk, reading a book, or catching up with a friend. After that activity is complete, check in to see if you still feel the urge to nag. Maybe what you needed was a break and now you can go have a constructive conversation about what you need from your spouse to feel more supported. Keep experimenting and you’ll find out what will alleviate the stress and anxiety you feel.

3) Then, we isolate the cue.
Once we pick a reward that satisfies the cue, we still need to understand the underlying trigger behind with cue. Most habitual cues are triggered in one of five ways: location, time, emotional state, other people or an immediately preceding action. If you are really committed to changing a habit, it’s suggested to log the location, time, your emotional state, the people around you and the action immediately prior to the habit. Reviewing the entries will show you the pattern that activates the habit.

4) Lastly, we need to have a plan.
Now that the routine, reward and cue are clear, we can design a different routine that provides the same reward after the same cue.

Next time you are procrastinating at work, you can set a timer before going on social media.

Next time you feel down about your medical condition, you can call one of your new friends or meet up with them at your new found hobby.

Next time you are upset with your spouse, you can go take some alone time before engaging in a conversation.

The first step in creating new habits is becoming aware of the existing ones. At AbleTo, our therapists and coaches can help you understand the underlying trigger to your habits and give you a new approach to achieving your goals. With more awareness, you can make healthier choices that make you feel better and live better.

AbleTo can help.

There is a lot you can do yourself, but sometimes you just need personal support. Let our behavior coaches and therapists give you one-on-one tailored help.

Call us at 833-498-5360, Monday-Friday 10am-8pm EST or Saturday 10am-6pm EST. Or request a call and we'll call when it is convenient for you.

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