Building and Breaking Habits

July 21, 2018

The key to breaking bad habits is to understand the cues that are driving your behaviours.

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he talks about the habit loop:

A cue triggers your brain to crave the response from a certain action.
A routine is undertaken as a response to this cue.
A reward is received as a result of the routine or behaviour.
By understanding this habit loop, we can begin to either build or break this process to create, remove, or modify habits.

A key find of Duhigg’s review of the research was that ‘…almost all habitual cues fit in to one of five categories.”:

Emotional state
Other people
Immediately preceding action
It makes sense that if we can identify which of these categories is cueing a behaviour we wish to remove or encourage, we can address this cue and create a more positive outcome.

A great way to do this is, every time you carry out a behaviour that you’re trying to remove, make a note of your location, the time, your emotional state, the people around you, and what you’ve just done. Then look for common themes.

Are you in the habit of snacking on unhealthy food? What is the common theme?

Are you always in the same place when you crave the snack?
Do you always crave the snack at the same time?
Do you only snack when you’re bored or tired?
Do you tend to snack when around a certain person or group of people?
Do you always snack when putting on a movie?
If you can identify which of the five categories commonly cues unhealthy snacking, you can address it.

The same applies to creating a new positive habit. Let’s say you want to exercise regularly.

When you’re at the gym, you tend to exercise (obviously!), so your focus shouldn’t be on exercising, but simply on getting to the gym – then the habit can take over.
After work you never feel like exercising, and because your willpower is depleted (and you have decision fatigue) you regularly make the decision to skip your exercise. In this case, exercising in the morning is a great strategy.
You always feel like exercising when you’re in an energetic mood. You always feel like you’ve got the most energy a couple of hours after breakfast in the mid morning, so this is where you should choose to insert exercise into your routine.
You have a certain bunch of friends who like to socialise by going for a brisk walk. Spend more time with them.
After you put on your running shoes, you go for a run! Lower the barrier to exercise by focussing on putting on your shoes – then the habit loop will take over!
A lot of this comes down to self awareness. If we can be better aware of WHY we do things, we can begin to reverse engineer our behaviours to create the habits that support our goals.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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