Healthy Habits Blog: Modifying Bad Habits

i. I’m Erin, Lamprey Health Care’s Registered Dietician. I’m also a working mom, which means making healthy living work in a busy house. A healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be hard.


Welcome to my Healthy Habits Corner.


Erin Campbell helps you tackle your bad habits 

This month we will be taking a closer look at bad habits, why we might have them, and the purpose they serve. We all have that one thing (or even more!) that we cannot seem to change. Whether your habit is snacking in the evening, forgetting your sneakers for the gym or never seeming to remember your medicine in the evening there is hope for you, but before we focus on changing our behaviors, we need a better understanding of why we might have these habits in the first place.


The Science of Habits

 All habits, both good and not so good, are composed of three elements: a cue, routine, and reward. It is the linking of the three elements together that creates a “habit loop.” If you are interested in learning more about the science behind habit loops, I encourage you to read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Let’s look at an example to see just how habits work. We are going to use the example of snacking on potato chips while watching television. In this “habit loop” the cue is turning on the television, the routine is grabbing the bag of chips and sinking into the comfy couch, and the reward is the salty and crunchy feel of the chips in your mouth and relaxation that follows the end of a stressful day. A habit is not solidified after the first time you engage in a behavior, such as snacking in the evening, but rather after you continue to repeat the same behavior.

There is a fourth element to the “habit loop” and that is craving. A craving is when your brain recognizes a cue, such as the television being turned on, and generates a craving for the reward. This craving or desire is what drives us to complete the “habit loop” by grabbing the bag of chips and relaxing on the couch.

Remember that not all habits are bad and they can help us manage multiple tasks in a complex world. For an example, when was the last time you thought about brushing your teeth in the morning or have your ever driven home from work and not remembered making a particular turn? However, when a habit is inhibiting us from meeting our goals, it is time for modification.


Habit Loop Modification

 The key to modifying these less than desirable habits is to change or alter our routine. We need to break the cycle of the “habit loop” before it is able to complete. In our example, the cue is turning on the television and the reward is relaxation, so we need to find an alternative to achieve relaxation. Instead of reaching for the bag of chips, try making a nice cup of tea, working on a craft project such as knitting, playing with your pet dog or cat, or maybe skip the television all together and consider going for a nice walk. Keep in mind that it takes time to form new habits so don’t give up if your first try doesn’t quite pan out.


What Are Your Cues?

Habit cues constantly surround us. Before we can start modifying our “habit loops” we need to identify our cues or triggers. External cues include things such as places, events or people. On the other hand internal cues are things such as emotions, memories, and thought patterns. Remembering how happy you were as a child and baking chocolate chip cookies with your grandmother at Christmas time could contain several cues for you.


Plan for Your Cues

 Once you identify your cues, it is time to make an action plan of how you plan to break the “habit loop” and free yourself from the bad behavior that is no longer serving you. Just like with any behavior change you want to focus your efforts on modifying one behavior at a time. It’s never a good idea to try to change everything at once. It can be helpful to think about, and possibly list, all the elements of the “habit loop.”

  • Behavior: What behavior do you want to change and does it have repetitive elements?
  • Cues: What is the cue or are there multiple cues?
  • Reward: What is the reward for the behavior or what about it is enjoyable?
  • Cravings: What drives you to fulfill the “habit loop”?

Next, it is time for some soul searching. Think of a new routines to implement at the first sight of your bad habit’s cue. Remember that you don’t have to do all the hard work alone. Ask others for help. You may be surprised that they are working on similar habits.

Once you have developed your plan it is time to implement it and modify as needed. Don’t forget, habits form through continuous repetition. Know that you will have to repeat, repeat, and keep on repeating the new routine to ensure that it sticks.


Plan for Obstacles Too

 Sometimes life can get really busy and it is easy to revert back to old habits. As you rework your routine, plan for those times when life gets busy. Planning will help make your new routines become automatic. Planning tools can be helpful, as well as keeping healthy snacks stocked at the places you spend the most time.

And of course, keep in the front of your mind your personal reasons for making a change in your life. Personal motivations give you the most strength to keep at it.