Habit Formation

How To Break Bad Habits and Build Good Ones Without Relying On Willpower


Habit FormationWhen it comes to personal change and transformation, we all have some pretty backwards ideas.

We think it’s all about ‘work’. About slugging it out, gritting your teeth, and not giving up; every day summoning the motivation and willpower to do what we want to do, and be who we want to be.

This vision and story of personal change is one that we, as a culture, celebrate, but don’t really think about. Willpower and motivation are limited resources. When we run out, this idea of how personal change is supposed to work leaves us without options. We fail and beat ourselves up, taking away from the motivation and willpower we believe is necessary to change.

But there is another way.

Achieving personal change and accessing the life you want is a matter of habit, not work. Learn to identify your bad habits, and change them into good ones, and you’ll find the work of personal change isn’t really work at all!

What Habits Are, and Why We Have Them

Probably not.

Fhabit formationor most, signalling the direction we want to merge or turn happens ‘on its own’. We’ve gotten so used to the pattern that we don’t even have to think about it; the body takes care of it naturally.

Habits are the mind’s way of saving time and energy. Imagine if every time you went to tie your shoes, spell your name, or walk; you had to think through every single step like you did when you first learned how. Habits are the minds way of programming these regularly-performed behaviours into a part of the brain (the basal ganglia) that doesn’t have to think about how to perform an action.

Learning how to tie your shoes was work when you were a child. Now that it’s habit, you probably aren’t even aware it’s happening when you do it!

If you can make going to the gym, eating well, or any personal change a habit, you can subtract ‘work’ from the experience; and simply watch as your brain takes care of the change for you!

Here’s how you do it:

How Habit Works, and Why Willpower Alone Is Not Enough To Form Them.

Bad HabitYour good habits and your bad habits all have three components.

A Trigger

A Behavior

A Reward

An example of a good habit: You wake up (trigger). You make the bed (behaviour). You enjoy your clean space (reward).

When you experience a positive reward, your brain will want to repeat the behaviour again next time it is triggered. When you experience a negative reward, your brain will actively resist forming a habit.

This is why the ‘willpower approach’ is such an unreliable one. We expect ourselves to suffer actions necessary for change, and thus deny ourselves the ability to committing the task to habit!

Turning Bad Habits Into Good Ones:

The first step in breaking bad habits is to identify and analyse them.

Keep in mind that sometimes what seems like a single habit can be many, as it’s common for the end of one habitual behaviour to be the start of another. A clink of a glass might habitually lead to drinking, and drinking might habitually lead to driving.

Maybe every friday night you like to indulge in pizza and wine, which inevitably triggers further indulgence in ice cream. Not a good habit for someone looking to lose weight.

But because you’re aware of this habitual trigger, behaviour, and reward ahead of time; you can plan a strategy to avoid over-indulgence without willpower!

You can do this by:

  • Quit SmokingAvoiding the trigger: Make different plans for Friday night ahead of time. One that you find just as enjoyable, but more in-line with your health goals. Instead of taking the family out for pizza, have dinner ready in advance and invest the savings into rock-climbing. You might find you like this even more; leading to healthy habit formation for you and the whole family!
  • Adjust the behaviour: If Friday night is your end-of-the-week cheat day, you don’t have to deny yourself an indulgence, but you can manage how you indulge. If you know that pizza and wine is going to trigger a desire for ice-cream, consider replacing it with something healthier that you’ll enjoy just as much, or more! Maybe a fruit smoothie or sangria with friends!
  • Manage Reward: How much more rewarding is an extra-large ice cream compared to a small? Our brain tells us it wants as much as it can get, but often a small ice cream provides it just as much satisfaction as a large. You regularly purchase a large, but purchase a small, and you might just find yourself getting into a healthier habit!.

Making Good Habits Out Of Nothing

Establishing a new habit instead of adjusting an existing one relies on the same principles, but works a little differently.

One way you can do this is by working off another habit.

Flossing HabitConsider flossing.

You’re probably in the habit of getting up, showering, brushing your teeth, etc. Each of these habits has their own associated triggers, behaviours, and rewards.

Maybe you like to brush your teeth after showering. You’re experiencing the reward of fresh, clean skin; and are now motivated to move onto the reward of a fresh mouth! Usually, this would compel you to brush, but having intentionally flossing first, you’ll incorporate flossing into your already-established behaviour, and allow the reward of mouth-freshness to entrench the habit of flossing!

Find flossing intentionally takes too much energy than you’re ready to give before your coffee? Consider incorporating flossing into any one of your daily habits. Bring floss with you to work, and get into the habit of flossing while you wait for your computer to start up, or while you wait for the bus, or after your lunch!

The Importance of Starting Small

We live in a culture of big claims and promises, and we’re prone to make them to ourselves unknowingly. We want to make massive changes, and we want them fast!

This kind of reality is not always unattainable, but can easily set a person up for failure. Accessible, long-lasting change comes from many little changes over time; not massive overnight transformations.

Want to start flossing? Don’t commit to yourself that ‘starting tomorrow, I’m going to floss every day till I die’, because that’s an unrealistic goal.

Consider making tomorrow’s goal so easy that success is easier than failure. Commit to flossing a single tooth tomorrow before you brush. It’s better to establish a good habit that is small than fail to establish a good habit that is big. Moreover, after flossing your tooth tomorrow, you’ll be energised by your success and ready to floss, so it’s likely you’ll floss all your teeth anyways!

Help With Habits

Establish good habits and breaking out of bad one’s can be a battle, but it isn’t one anyone needs to fight alone. If you or someone you know is grappling with entrenched behaviours they’re struggling to change, Capital Choice Counselling is here to help. To learn about the resources available to you, and the ways we can help, get in touch with the form below!

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Martin Rovers