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2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits

This is Part 3 in a 3-part series on Habit Eating.

(1) How Habits Can Control Your Eating
(2) 3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits
(3) 2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits


Habits are automatic behavior cued by context (where you are, what you’re doing), performed without intention, and with minimal thought. In Part 1 of this series I described how they’re created and why. In Part 2, I described three strategies for blocking or interrupting habits that have already been cued. In this third and last article in the series, I will describe the most effective way to break a habit – avoiding the cue – and how to create new, positive habits.

There are thousands of blog posts about how to break habits and create new ones. My advice will be a little different. As with the previous articles in this series, the strategies I recommend are based on controlled studies written by psychologists and published in refereed professional journals.

Avoid Habit Cues – Take Advantage of Transitions

Hands down, experts agree that the best way to break a habit is to avoid the contexts that cue the habit. There is also consensus that the most effective way to do this (some say the only way) is through major life change: moving to a new town, entering college, graduating from college, changing jobs, getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, etc.

During these natural life transitions, cues are gone, you stop acting out of habit, and you think about everything you do rather than acting automatically. Everything is open to reevaluation. You try new things and decide what you like and don’t like. You meet new people, make new friends.

Retailers love people in transition because they are the most open to trying new brands and products. To identify them, they buy lists, or hire statisticians to create multivariate models. And then they shower them with advertising in the hope that they will establish a new habit that includes heavy shopping at their store.

A time when you have no habits is a time when you are creating new habits. No one knows this better than retailers, but you should know it, too. If you are aware that you are establishing new habits, you can act deliberately and not squander the opportunity. You have a choice: will you create good habits or bad habits?

Take, for example, the transition of marriage. Both men and women tend to gain weight in the first two years of marriage, with women gaining more. New habits are established with marriage, and apparently they typically involve eating more. It’s hard to say what new habits cause the weight gain without more information. But if you thought about what you were eating as a newlywed in terms of new habits, you probably could identify the bad habits and avoid them.

This same principle goes for other transitions. When you become a parent, for example, you don’t have to create a new habit of eating your child’s leftovers. Life changes drastically when a child is born. Be especially careful at times like these not to fall into bad habits that will plague you long term.

If your life isn’t in transition, it’s not as easy to avoid cues. But there still can be opportunities. Look around you and think about your patterns. Here’s a common one. Remove snack foods from counter tops. Just seeing cookies and crackers is a cue for many people. When they are in view, you take a handful. When they are in a cabinet, you don’t.

In Part 2 I talked about how to block habits after they were cued – for example, how to sit in front of the TV without mindlessly eating. It’s much easier without the cue. If you have a habit of eating in front of the TV, watch less TV. If you have a habit of eating while surfing the internet, find something else to do. Take a walk, call a friend, or clean out your closet.

They have a saying in AA: "Don’t go to a barber shop if you don’t want a hair cut." Newly sober people are strongly urged to avoid the places where they used to drink and the people they used to drink with – their habit cues. AA doesn’t teach newly sober people how to go to a bar and not drink. They say, "Don’t go to bars!"

Tip: The easiest way to break old habits is to avoid the contexts that cue them. Use transitions to your benefit.

Create Positive New Habits

How do you create a habit? It’s not just repetition, as many people think. It’s been said that if you do something every day for 30 days it will become a habit. That’s not necessarily so. Here’s why.

Habits are learned as people pursue goals in their daily lives. In the learning phase, the "habit loop" has three parts: a stable context, a routine, and a reward. The loop must repeat many times before it’s stored in habit memory. In a naturally created habit, the reward causes you to repeat the loop – i.e. the routine is very rewarding. Over time, the context becomes associated with the routine. Once the routine becomes a habit, the reward becomes irrelevant and the routine is cued only by the context (see the popcorn study in Part 2). But the reward is a crucial part of habit formation.

There must be a strong and consistent sense of reward for a behavior you’re repeating to be stored in habit memory. This is because storage in habit memory requires dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. If the routine doesn’t feel rewarding to you, if it’s not pleasurable on some level, it will never become a habit. Nothing you do over and over while hating every second of it will ever become a habit.

I discovered this in my own life – the hard way. Some years ago, I decided that I would develop a habit of jogging every morning. I’ve never liked jogging because my aerobic capacity has always been limited, even as a child, despite being a normal weight and getting regular exercise. I’ve since learned that aerobic capacity is genetically determined and you can’t improve it beyond a narrow range. But I didn’t know that at the time and I thought I could improve.

Every morning for three months I got up and jogged (as best I could) for two miles. I never improved, and I absolutely hated it. The feeling of insufficient oxygen in my body was agony. After three months I decided I was done with that, and never looked back. No habit was created, despite many repetitions, because I found the behavior completely unrewarding. There was very little dopamine in my brain after jogging.

If you want to establish a new habit, don’t suffer through something for 30 days with the idea that it will magically stick. It won’t. If you want to make a new habit of daily exercise or healthy eating, then you need to find a way to do it that’s fun for you and fits your lifestyle. That is the piece that is missing from most articles about creating new habits. I’ve seen a lot of focus on tricks for making you repeat the new behavior. That’s okay, but if the behavior is intrinsically rewarding, it won’t be that hard to get yourself to repeat it. If it’s not intrinsically rewarding, you can repeat it forever and it won’t become a habit.

Tip: If a behavior is not rewarding, it will never become a habit, no matter how often it’s repeated.

This is the third and last article in the series on Habit Eating. I hope it was useful!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.