How to change habits

Studies of people quitting smoking have identified that each attempt brings a higher chance of success.

May 18 2017

A habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously, which means it doesn’t take effort to maintain it. So healthy habits are much easier to maintain than a healthy behaviour that is not habitual. 

For example, if you have healthy food for breakfast habitually every morning, it is likely that it takes minimal effort for your first meal to be nourishing and good for you. Conversely, an unhealthy habit, that is a behaviour that has a negative impact on your health, can be difficult to break. 

It’s the unconscious nature of habits that can make them difficult to change1. You can be midway through the unhealthy behaviour before realising what you are doing. Do you find yourself biting your nails without realising? Do you overeat without noticing? Or do you ever wonder how the bottle of wine (or fridge of beer) got so empty?

Identify your cues

Almost all habits are linked to a context or a cue2. That means the habitual behaviour occurs in response to something, or in a particular situation.

It is important to spend some time identifying the context of the habit you want to change; that is, what is usually happening just before you perform the habitual behaviour. For example, do you drink too much alcohol on particularly stressful days? Or do you eat unhealthy food only when you are upset? 

Alternate your behaviour

It will be much easier to change your habit if you identify another way of responding to those situations. Rather than having alcohol after a stressful day, you could schedule an exercise class, or visit a relaxing place on your way home.

Altering the behaviour pattern can make it much easier to change the habitual response. It also helps to have an alternative behaviour you can do. You could have a healthy snack or drink that you can replace the alcohol or unhealthy food with ready to go at home. 

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Habits become stronger the more they are repeated3, particularly if you repeat the habit in the same context. That means that if you exercise every morning as your first activity of each day, it will be easier to repeat this behaviour, and easier still if you are usually at home and more difficult when you are away.  

If you slip up, just keep going

Any change is difficult, and it would be expected that circumstances will occur that make it hard to consistently perform a new habit. For instance, if you are unwell you may need to take a break from exercise.

Few people are able to adopt a new habit and maintain it on the first time. Studies4 of people quitting smoking have identified that with each attempt they have a higher chance of success. 

The adage: practice makes perfect applies! Don’t consider your attempt at change a failure if you don’t succeed the first time. Try again. And again.

For assistance identifying the factors maintaining your habits and to get help with implementing new healthy habits, contact your EAP on 1800 629 277 or
  1. Gardner, B., de Bruijn, G., & Lally, P. (2011). A systematic review and meta-analysis of applications of the self-report habit index to nutrition and physical activity behaviours. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 42(2), 174-87. 

  2. de Bruijn, G., Rhodes, R. E., & van Osch, L. (2012). Does action planning moderate the intention-habit interaction in the exercise domain? A three-way interaction analysis investigation. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35(5), 509-19. 

  3. Rothman, A. J., Sheeran, P., & Wood, W. (2009). Reflective and automatic processes in the initiation and maintenance of dietary change. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 38, S4–S17. 

  4. Caponnetto, P., & Polosa, R. (2008). Common predictors of smoking cessation in clinical practice. Respiratory Medicine, 102(8), 1182-92. 

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