How to form habits that actually stick

Amy Wood - Nutritionist

Habitual behaviours are those truly ingrained into our brains. They happen almost automatically, without any real thought, and many of them control what our daily lives look like. Do you ever think about the directions you take on your commute to work? Perhaps the first few times you travelled there, but after so many journeys, it’s very likely your body simply guides you there without much thought at all. Habits can help us to make choices innately – these can either be healthy, or can also trap us in a cycle of less positive behaviour. By taking a deeper dive and looking at how we form habits, we can better understand the best way to approach healthy habit forming, ensuring those New Year resolutions stick for good this time!

The science

Humans have evolved to be creatures of habit, and for good reason. By wasting less time and energy making simple decisions, we were able to avoid many life-or-death situations. It’s thought we learn habits through a loop of repeating behaviours that cycle round and round until the habit sticks. The three key elements of this ‘habit loop’ are:

  1. The cue – for example, feeling stressed or bored.
  2. The routine – your response to the above situation is to reach for a chocolate bar.
  3. The reward – a quick hit of the ‘feel-good’ hormone dopamine, and a temporary reduction in stress or boredom.

Once the dopamine subsides, our brain wants more, and begins to learn that the cue in question paired with the routine will provide it.

How can we use this to form good habits?

To create new habits, we need to use our knowledge of the habit loop. The best place to start is your reward. This only needs to be a relatively short-term strategy – we know from behavioural studies that once a habit is formed, the brain will continue to carry out the habitual behaviour even when the reward is removed. Consider setting aside some of your favourite TV shows and podcasts, and only watch or listen to them when you get active.

Another underlying key to habit forming is repetition. We need to repeat the behaviour over and over to solidify the habit in our brains.

Finally, it can really help to shape your surroundings and take advantage of any existing habits you have. For example, if your first habit in the morning is to head downstairs and make yourself a coffee, leave your workout clothes in front of the door on your way there. So your habit eventually changes from ‘make coffee’ to ‘put on workout clothes, then make coffee’.

How can we break bad habits?

As the old saying goes, ‘old habits die hard’. It’s not possible to rewire our brains overnight, in fact, it might never truly go away. The good news is – we can forget old habits, and we can replace them. Here's an analogy to help: imagine a field of waist-deep corn – your habit is like a well-trodden pathway through it. It's quick, easy and takes very little effort to walk through. Forming a new habit requires you to take a different direction through the field. Initially, it's hard work to beat down the corn and form a pathway. It requires repeated visits by you to establish this new path, but eventually, with time, it becomes quick, easy and effortless.

We can intervene in the habit loop in several places. The first point of action is removing the cue, as this is ultimately what triggers the unhealthy behaviour. Pay close attention and reflect on yourself – work out what your cues are. If your trigger is feeling stressed or bored, find a new way to treat this – look into mindfulness, meditation, read a book, get out for a walk or run, talk to a family member or friend. If your cue is a specific place, for example, a particular route on your way home from work that passes a drive-thru or takeaway, take a different route home.

If you cannot remove the cue from your life, create a different routine. When you sit in front of the TV, make yourself a bowl of chopped fruit to snack on, or occupy your hands by holding a cup of tea, knitting or painting your nails. Stay mindful of why you want to break your bad habit, what you really gain from continuing the habit, and the huge impact it could have on your life to break the habit. Your brain has likely never really scrutinised why it carries out such an impulsive behaviour, so even just thinking about this can help.

How long does it take to make or break a habit?

You might have heard the saying that habits take 21 days to form. This might be a reasonable estimate for some people, but the length of time to change a habit largely depends on the person and the habit itself, as well as the measures you’ve put in place to make it an effective change. Some habits can take months to truly form, while others might establish in just a matter of weeks.

Looking for healthy habit inspiration? Take a look at our ideas here!

Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.

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