How to Break Bad Habits

Author Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. 


When bill gates said “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” He was inadvertently describing the human brain. Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, professor and author of the book Why Students Don't Like School describes thinking as effortful, slow, and unreliable. If we had to think about everything we did, life would quickly get exhausting. Instead, our brain has developed processes to automate our actions. TIf we had to think about everything we did, life would quickly get exhausting. Instead, our brain has developed processes to automate our actions. This is also why every morning you find yourself hitting the snooze button and skipping the gym. It’s not your fault - you are being controlled by habits. Habits automate our lives and can be difficult to change.  Here;s the blueprint for breaking and replacing your bad habits.  

Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit does an excellent job in summarizing the basis of how habits work and how we can approach changing them.  Habits are powerful automated routines our brain has created to help us save time and energy. When a habit is formed it often works on a subconscious level so we find ourselves doing a task or routine without thinking about it. Good habits are fantastic, however, bad habits can destroy a diet or fitness routine.

Duhigg details what scientist have called the habit loop. The habit loop is responsible for how habits form and how they work. The loop consists of three parts: a cue,  a response, and then a reward. For example, when you enter a car and take a seat you reach over and grab the seatbelt, then you buckle in without any thought. The cue is entering the car and taking a seat, the routine is buckling up and the reward is knowing your safe and won't have to worry about being pulled over and ticketed. This has become ingrained like hundreds of other habits in our daily lives. Once a habit is formed through the repetition of this process, then any time that cue is presented, you will perform the routine.

“Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time. “

David J. Townsend and Thomas G. Bever, Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits and Rules

Habits operate outside of our conscious thought. You may tell yourself you will not eat that cookie today, only to find all the willpower you could muster still wasn’t enough. Success in my industry isn’t always about who has the best training plan, but rather who has the best adherence. Bad habits can destroy adherence and lead to disappointing results. One of the reasons I like the book The Power of Habit so much is that Duhigg takes the time to outline the framework for changing habits. So how do we break a bad habit?

Here is Duhigg's framework:

  1. Identify the routine

  2. Experiment with rewards

  3. Isolate the cue

  4. Have a Plan

Identify the Routine

The first step to fixing any problem is figuring out what the problem is. The first phase of the framework is identifying the components of the habit loop.

What is the routine?

The routine is what it is that you do or the behavior you want to change. I will use an example of a smoker, let's name him Rob, who wants to quit but just can’t. He can stop for most of the day, but when he goes back to work he finds himself smoking again. Midday at work rob goes out and takes a drag. Despite how much he wants to quit and tells himself not to he still does. Afterward, he feels better then returns to work. This is his routine. Once you identify the routine and the behavior you would like to change, then you can proceed on to the next phase.

Experiment with Rewards  

In this phase, you want to figure out the reward. Rewards can be something that brings you joy such as receiving a free sample, the rush of endorphin after eating a treat, or the joy that you receive from mingling with coworkers. Rewards can also be something that removes an unpleasurable feeling such as satiating hunger, a relief from boredom, or the need for a break.  In this part, your goal is to experiment. You want to find what reward your habit gives you and then look for things that can give different rewards. Rob might try swapping out a cigarette for a conversation with someone or drinking a coffee to provide a quick burst of energy, or going for a walk.  In this phase, you don’t try to change the habit, but instead, find out what the reward is. For Rob, he found that if he drank a cup of coffee the urge to smoke would dissipate. Tips that Duhigg suggest for getting the most out of this experiment is writing down briefly how you felt after each reward. The act of writing brings attention to how you feel and allows you to look back and see which changes were most effective at reducing the desire for the initial habit.

Isolate The Cue

The cue is what triggers your routine. It is helpful to look at what rewards were most effective. Rob found that substituting his midday cigarette with a cup of coffee was effective. For Rob his cue was the feeling of tiredness in the middle of the day, triggering him to want a burst of energy which the nicotine provided.  When trying to identify your own cues, consider that most triggers fall into one of these 5 categories:

  1. Location

  2. Time

  3. Emotional State

  4. Other People

  5. The Immediately preceding action

With this in mind ask yourselves these questions when you perform your habit routine

  1. Where were you?

  2. What time? or When did it happen?

  3. How did you feel before?

  4. Who were you with?

  5. What action or event immediately preceded the routine?

Have a Plan

The last phase of the framework provided by Duhigg is to have a plan. Your plan is how you will deal with your habit. The habit loop consists of a cue-response-reward. So when making a plan, address each of these. Start with the cue. If possible-  avoid the trigger of your routine. For example, try changing your route avoiding the aroma of warm Cinnabon's when you go to the mall.  For other scenarios avoiding the cue is not plausible. When this is the case make a plan for how you will react. For Rob, he has figured out that when he gets tired at work he will be tempted to smoke. He has altered his plan to get more sleep so he won’t be as tired. If he does find himself getting fatigued he will make a cup of coffee during his lunch to satisfy his need for energy.

Habits are hard to change. Habits are individual, with different cues and rewards for everyone. There is no one size fits all prescription for changing a habit, however the above is a very effective framework for figuring out how to approach each of our bad habits to change them. I want to hear from you about some of the specific health and fitness habits that you have changed and how you did it. Comment below or send a message to me.

Disclaimer: I make a commission for purchases made through the links on this post. The funds are used to help keep this site running. Any recommendations are based on my opinion because I feel it would be beneficial for you the reader.

Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit

Why Students Don't Like School by professor Dan Willingham

I also mentioned the text Why Students Don't Like School by professor Dan Willingham. While this text is outside the scope of the blog it is a read that I strongly recommend to anyone in a teaching position. It's scientifically founded, and easy to read text provides methods for teaching by addressing how it is students learn in the first place. It is a must-read for teachers and can be beneficial to those who enjoy learning how we as humans learn in the first place.

Stephen Griffith