The Science Behind Replacing Bad Habits With Good Ones

Breaking Bad…Habits (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist)

Whenever you’re making a big change in your life, it’s important to understand the process your brain and body are going through. More specifically, I want you to have a solid grasp of habits: what they are and how to change them.

The dictionary definition of habit is a “settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” There are good habits and there are bad ones.

As luck would have it, it’s the latter that are often so difficult to give up.

Why is that?


The Anatomy Of A Habit

I pull a lot of my insights from Charles Duhigg’s work and his book The Power Of Habit which I cannot recommend enough.

To start, let’s review a little bit about how habits work and the good old habit loop.

Habit Loop via Charles Duhigg

Duhigg suggests that if you want to change a habit, you have to understand your habit loop. I’ll use late night snacking as an example.

A cue for your bad snacking habit could be any number of things. Let’s say it’s 9 o’clock at night and your kid finally went to sleep. It only took an hour and a half, but hey! Who’s counting?

The routine is to head on over to the fridge and treat yourself to a bowl of ice cream. This is your sweet, blissful, kids-are-finally-in-bed reward.

One note about habit loops: sometimes the cues and the rewards are not particularly obvious. You’ll need to sit down and think through whether or not you know for sure what cues your habit and what reward you actually get from it.


Understanding Your Rewards

Duhigg suggests that you play scientist as you determine what exactly are the rewards you get from any habit or routine. Let’s go back to breaking the habit of late night ice cream treats.

It’s time to experiment.

After you the kiddos fall asleep, try sitting down and taking some deep breaths. Are you still hankering for some ice cream?

Can you have a piece of fruit instead and feel satisfied? A cup of tea?

What is the ACTUAL reward of your nightly ice cream?

Is it to satisfy a sweet tooth? Are you actually hungry? Or maybe it’s something else.

Maybe you’re using food to cope with the stress of parenting.

Get granular. What are you REALLY getting out of this?

close up ice cream sandwich bad habit
replacing bad snacking habits


Understanding Your Cue

Sometimes cues are easy to sort out, but often times, there are deeper, less obvious things triggering us to engage in a routine that we’re trying to avoid (i.e. 9 o’clock ice cream).If you’re unsure of what exactly is causing the urge to grab your coat and head to the bar, Duhigg suggests keeping track of five categories.

  • Location (Where am I?)
  • Time (What time is it?)
  • Emotional state (How do I feel right now?)
  • Other people (Who else is around?)
  • Immediate preceding action (What action proceeded the urge?)

Every time you feel like heading straight to the fridge once the kids are asleep, write the answers down to these questions. I’ll give some examples:

  • Where am I? Standing in the hallway
  • What time is it? 9 0’clock
  • How do I feel right now? So tired from getting the kids to bed
  • Who else is around? My spouse
  • What action proceeded the urge? I closed the bedroom door to my kid’s room

Do this a few times and see what consistently triggers you to the fridge. Does an emotion cue your desire for the ice cream? Is it the time of day? Does your spouse join in the post-bedtime ice cream routine?

It might be as simple as, well it’s 9:00 PM and this is what I always do at this time on this day, but maybe it’s something else. Once you identify it, then you can change it.


Changing Your Habit Loop

woman thinking about her habit loops
recreating habit loops to replace bad habits

Once you’ve got a firm grasp of the cues driving you to this routine and the reward it gives you, you’re ready to make some changes.

Let’s say the cue is time. At 9:00 pm every night you get hit with the urge to go to run to the fridge and grab some ice cream because it makes you feel relaxed after the bed time routine.

What can you do instead? What is something else you can do to feel relaxed once the kids are down? Grab a comfy blanket and settle in for some horrible TV for an hour? Do some breathing exercises? Take a hot bath or shower?

Experiment with this as well until you find something that gives you a reward equal to the benefit you received from the old habit.

Let’s say a bubble bath and your favorite podcast is doing it for you. Make a plan!

At 9 pm every day, I am taking the monitor and heading straight for the bath tub where I start filling up the tub with bubbles. I don’t even look at the fridge. I make a deal with my SO that if the kid wakes up before my 45 minute podcast episode is finished, s/he takes them. 

Alas, what seems simple in theory, is often not.


Breaking a bad habit is really hard.

Especially those we adopt in order to drown out difficult emotions that we are struggling to cope with in healthy ways, like coming home after a long day at work and dealing with the chaos of a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed.

Sometimes the problem runs even deeper.

Take this as a framework for starting to get rid of things that are no longer serving you.

Start small.

Find a bad habit that isn’t too big, like checking your phone first thing in the morning and use this process to replace that behavior with something more useful.

Once you get a handle on that, move on to the next one.

This really is a piece by piece approach, and it should be! You didn’t develop all your bad habits at once, and certainly not overnight. The same is true of how you’ll get rid of them.

Be consistent, be purposeful, and you’ll get there!

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