We've all been there: trying to break a bad habit or cultivate a good one (New Year resolutions springs to mind) only to find ourselves back at square one after a few weeks. It's frustrating, isn't it? But don't despair…
Changing habits is not an impossible task, even if you've tried many times before. And the good news... you don't need an iron will or an unshakable resolve. All it requires is understanding, patience, and a systematic approach.
Moreover, changing habits can significantly improve your quality of life, enhance your health, and boost your overall well-being.
In this article, we'll walk you through a simple step-by-step guide on how to change habits, backed by scientific research. We'll also address some frequently asked questions to help you along the way.
So if you've ever struggled to change a habit, this guide is for you.
9 steps to change a habit
Step 1: Understand Your Habits
Before you can change a habit, you need to understand it. Habits consist of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. This is known as the 'habit loop' (Duhigg, 2012).
The cue triggers the routine, and the reward reinforces the habit. For example, if you have a habit of eating chocolate while watching TV (routine), the cue might be sitting down with the remote, and the reward could be the pleasure of the sweet taste.
Step 2: Identify Your Cues and Rewards
Once you understand the habit loop, the next step is to identify your cues and rewards. This can be challenging, as cues can be anything from a time of day, a location, a feeling, or even a person (Clear, 2018). Rewards can be physical (like the taste of chocolate), emotional (feeling relaxed), or psychological (a sense of comfort).
To help with this, consider keeping a habit journal for two weeks. Each time you engage in the habit, write down the cue (what triggered the habit), the routine (the habit itself), and the reward (what you get out of the habit).
For example, let's say you're trying to understand your habit of eating chocolate while watching TV. Each time you find yourself reaching for a chocolate, you note down the cue (sitting down to watch TV), the routine (eating chocolate), and the reward (the pleasure of the sweet taste and the relaxation from watching TV).
After two weeks review your entries and look for patterns. You might notice that the cue for your chocolate-eating habit is consistently sitting down to watch TV, and the reward is the combination of sweet taste and relaxation. This insight gives you a clearer understanding of your habit loop.
Step 3: Make a Plan
Creating a plan for changing your habits is a crucial step in the process. It involves taking the insights you've gained from understanding your habit loop and using them to devise a strategy for change.
Define Your New Routine: If you're trying to break a bad habit, the goal is to keep the cue and reward but change the routine (Duhigg, 2012). If you're trying to cultivate a good habit, you'll want to create a clear routine that will be triggered by a specific cue and followed by a satisfying reward (Clear, 2018). Be as specific as possible when defining your new routine. For example, instead of saying "stop eating chocolate," you might say "eat a piece of fruit instead of chocolate while watching TV."
Plan for Obstacles: Think about the potential obstacles that might get in the way of your new routine and plan for how to handle them. For example, if you're planning to eat fruit instead of chocolate, but you've run out of fruit, you could plan to have other healthy snacks available as a backup.
Use 'If-Then' Planning: 'If-Then' planning is a powerful strategy that can help you stick to your new routine. It involves creating a plan that specifies when, where, and how you will act in a particular situation. For example, "If I sit down to watch TV, then I will eat a piece of fruit instead of chocolate." Research shows that people who use 'If-Then' planning are more likely to achieve their goals (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).
Write it Down: Writing down your plan can make it feel more concrete and official. It also gives you a reference to look back on if you're feeling unsure or unmotivated.
Share Your Plan: Consider sharing your plan with a supportive friend, family member, or mentor. They can provide encouragement, hold you accountable, and help you navigate obstacles.
Remember to set realistic goals for your new routine. It's better to aim for small, achievable changes than to set overly ambitious goals that may lead to disappointment and demotivation. The best plan is one that works for you, so don't be afraid to tweak it as you go along.
Step 4: Start Small
When it comes to changing habits, starting small is key. Research shows that people who make tiny, easy changes are more likely to succeed than those who try to make big changes all at once (Fogg, 2019).
For example, if you want to replace chocolate with fruit, start by doing it for one TV session a day. Once that becomes a habit, you can gradually increase the number of TV sessions where you choose fruit over chocolate.
Step 5: Make it Satisfying
One of the most effective ways to make a habit stick is to make it satisfying. This is because our brains are wired to repeat behaviours that make us feel good (Clear, 2018).
So, find a way to make your new routine enjoyable. This could be by choosing fruits that you really enjoy or by giving yourself a small reward when you choose fruit over chocolate.
However, ensure that the rewards you choose are beneficial and healthy in the long term. You don't want to replace one bad habit with another.
Step 6: Be Consistent
Consistency is crucial when it comes to changing habits. Research shows that it's not about how often you perform a habit but how consistently you do it that matters (Lally et al., 2010).
So, try to perform your new routine at the same time and place every day. This will help to strengthen the association between the cue and the routine, making the habit more automatic over time.
Step 7: Be Patient
Finally, be patient with yourself. Changing habits takes time. On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic (Lally et al., 2010). So, don't be discouraged if you don't see immediate results. Keep going, and remember that every small step you take is a step towards your goal.
Step 8: Embrace Mistakes and Learn from Them
Mistakes are an inevitable part of the habit-changing journey. In fact, they're not just inevitable; they're also invaluable.
Each mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. If you slip up and revert to an old habit or skip a new one, don't beat yourself up. Instead, try to understand why it happened. Was there a particular trigger? Were you feeling stressed or tired? Use this information to plan for similar situations in the future.
Research by Norcross et al. (2002) shows that people who successfully change habits are those who view lapses as temporary setbacks rather than failures. They practice self-compassion, dust themselves off, and get back on track. Remember, it's not about being perfect; it's about making progress.
Step 9: Build Resilience
Building resilience is key to dealing with setbacks. This involves developing a positive mindset and focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. Research shows that people who are resilient are more likely to maintain their new habits in the face of challenges (Kashdan et al., 2014).
You can build resilience by practicing mindfulness, which involves staying present and accepting your experiences without judgement. Positive self-talk, or speaking to yourself in a supportive and encouraging way, can also boost your resilience.
Remember, it's also important to seek support from others when dealing with setbacks. You're not alone in this journey, and sharing your experiences with supportive friends, family, or a mentor can be incredibly helpful.
Finally, managing stress through techniques like deep breathing, yoga, or other forms of exercise can help you stay resilient in the face of setbacks.
Building resilience will not only help you deal with setbacks, but also empower you to keep going and stay committed to your habit change journey.
And here's Morris who created a habit of swimming all year round. Starting in the summer, when it was warm. Swimming for a set time, and on set days. It quickly became a fixed habit.
The photo is of the coldest day of last year -5c on the beach and the water was 4c.
Just like Morris, you too can successfully change your habits, whatever they may be, by following the steps in this guide.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. How long does it take to form a new habit?
On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic (Lally et al., 2010). However, the exact timeframe can vary widely depending on the person, the habit, and the circumstances. Be patient with yourself and focus on consistency rather than speed.
2. What if I miss a day? Will it ruin my progress?
No, missing a day will not ruin your progress. Building a new habit is not about perfection; it's about overall consistency. If you miss a day, don't beat yourself up. Just get back on track as soon as you can.
3. I've tried to change my habits before and failed. Why would this time be any different?
Changing habits is challenging, and it's normal to experience setbacks along the way. However, the approach outlined in this article is based on scientific research and proven strategies. By understanding your habits, making a plan, starting small, making it satisfying, being consistent, and being patient, you can increase your chances of success.
4. What if my habit is too ingrained to change?
No habit is too ingrained to change. Even deeply ingrained habits can be changed by understanding the habit loop and systematically replacing the routine while keeping the cue and reward the same (Duhigg, 2012).
5. Can I work on changing multiple habits at once?
While it's possible to work on changing multiple habits at once, it's generally more effective to focus on one habit at a time. Trying to change too many habits at once can be overwhelming and may reduce your chances of success (Clear, 2018).
6. What if I don't have the willpower to change my habits?
Changing habits is not about willpower; it's about creating a system that makes the desired behaviour easy and satisfying (Clear, 2018). By following the steps outlined in this article, you can change your habits even if you've struggled with willpower in the past.
7. What if the new habit doesn't seem to be working?
If you've been consistent with your new habit for some time and it doesn't seem to be working, it might be time to reassess. Perhaps the cue, routine, or reward needs to be adjusted. Or maybe there's an obstacle you hadn't anticipated. Use this as an opportunity to learn and adjust your plan.
8. How can I maintain my new habits in the long term?
Maintaining new habits in the long term requires continuous effort and commitment. It's important to keep reminding yourself of the reasons why you wanted to change the habit in the first place. Regularly reviewing and adjusting your plan can also help to keep you on track. Remember, it's not about perfection, but about making consistent progress over time.
So why wait? Start your habit change journey today and discover the power of small, consistent changes.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery.
Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Norcross, J. C., Ratzin, A. C., & Payne, D. (2002). Ringing in the new year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 27(2), 205-212.
Kashdan, T. B., Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865-878.
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.
More for your health...
How to resist food temptations
What happens when you eat an ultra processed diet for 30 days