How to Build or Break a Habit

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Isn’t it interesting that while most doctors, leaders, teachers and employers recognize that lifestyle has a big impact on performance, very few will be able to help you address yours in a way that will result in real change? It could be because it’s one of those tricky things that’s simple, but not easy. Lifestyle is, after all, just the combination of daily routines and habits you’ve found for yourself, from the pattern of activities you go through upon waking to what you eat for lunch or when you watch TV. We know that doing certain things regularly, like exercise, eating vegetables, and flossing, create happier and healthier lives. So why is it so hard to make those things routine?

Dissecting a habit

Habits can be broken down into 3 parts:

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The first step, recognizing what triggers lead to behavior, can be the hardest part. Many people find themselves halfway through a pint of ice cream or dozens of minutes into a TV show without knowing what happened that led them there!  So the first step to habit change is observation & self-inquiry. As Judson Brewer says, “get curious!” – in his TED Talk about habits, he shares how smokers told not to stop smoking, but to become more observant about the process were more successful at actually quitting. By noticing what made them want to smoke, and what the act of smoking was really like (dirty, smelly), they were able to quit at 3 times the rate of people in a program sponsored by the American Lung Association. 

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Habits: what are they good for?

Your brain is designed to create habits – it conserves space and allows you to use less decision making energy when you can put some of your daily activities on autopilot! A simple example of this is a light switch – have you ever walked into a room where the light was already on, and hit the switch anyway?  The trigger was location (standing in a doorway), the action is the movement of your hand, and the reward is light. The whole reaction happens in mere seconds! The next time you find yourself standing in a dark room because you turned the light off when it was already on, you can thank your brain for creating that habit!

When you understand how this process works, you can set up systems that will help you use the habit-forming function of your brain to create good routines. Good habits are things you’ll do frequently and regularly. They might not actually have a huge impact alone, but a big cumulative effect. For instance, most people would agree that brushing their teeth for 2 minutes a day has a bigger impact than brushing once weekly for 14 minutes! Same with exercise – 10 minutes of weight training 3-4 times a week is more effective than a single 40 minute session weekly.  So the good news is that you can get results and feel better with only small tweaks! 

So, how do you make those small, good habits part of your daily routines? Here are 3 key strategies to start wiring your brain to build new habits. Think of something you’d like to make a change around, and employ them! 

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1. Change the environment

This works especially well for food related goals.  You can’t eat what’s not there, and are of course more likely to eat what is nearby. So if your fridge and cabinets are full of treats and indulgent options, that’s what you’re mostly likely to reach for, even if you have the best of intentions. People who kept a candy bowl in arm’s reach at work eat 2 more pieces of candy daily (on average) than those who keep the bowl out of sight or across the room. By the end of the month, that’s quite a pile of candy! It can work for exercise, too – laying out your workout clothes the night before for that early morning session, or putting your sneakers by your office desk to remind you to take a midday jaunt can be the breadcrumbs you follow to action.

2. Replace the action

Once you’re aware of your triggers and cues, it’s much easier to insert a new action than just resist temptation. Nail biter?  Grab silly putty or a fidget gadget to keep your hands occupied.  Late night snacker? Have herbal tea instead. Aimless internet surfing? Use Evernote to keep an ongoing to-do list to work on.  Yes, these are all hard habits to break and will require some effort – but having an action to insert into the sequence after you notice a cue will make it much easier!

3. Habit stacking

Hack the system by linking a new habit to one you’ve already gotten ingrained. In his TEDx talk, BJ Fogg describes how he incorporates 40-50 pushups into his day – by doing just a few each time after he uses the restroom!  For the first few weeks, you’ll have to make a conscious effort, but once your brain gets the hang of things, things will become more automatic. Watch his talk (especially around 13:30!) to hear him describe what he does – he’s used this method over 20,000 times with thousands of people to elicit small changes that pay off big. 

One last factor is accountability – having someone else who knows what you’re up to, and who will check in with you about it!  Ask a friend, family member, or coworker…or, if you want to make some food changes, ask me!  Sign up here for a free 30 minute session to pinpoint areas you’d like to change and make a plan to work together.  Happy habit changing!


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Sarah Waybright MS, RD is the owner and founder of WhyFoodWorks and the team dietitian for Vegetable and Butcher. WhyFoodWorks does nutrition education through food in Washington, DC in corporate seminars. Vegetable and Butcher is a subscription-based service that delivers chef designed, dietitian approved, thoughtful prepared meals to health-conscious people in Washington, DC. You can find Sarah on Twitter, FacebookPinterest or Instagram to get food and nutrition tips - and of course, healthy recipes.

CurateEmily Smith