Changing Habits: How to Make Lasting Lifestyle Changes

What you will learn:

We are the sum of our habits.

Changing habits can be a challenging task, but it is possible with the right approach. Habits are the behaviours that people repeatedly do in response to certain cues or triggers. These habits can be good or bad, and they can have a significant impact on a person’s life.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding habits is crucial in changing them.
  • Preparing for change involves setting goals, creating a plan, and enlisting support.
  • Implementing new habits requires patience, self-discipline, and a willingness to adapt.

Understanding Habits

Habits are automatic behaviours that are performed with little or no conscious thought. They are formed through the repetition of a specific behaviour in response to a specific cue, which leads to a reward. Once a habit is established, it becomes automatic and is performed without conscious thought. Understanding the science of habit formation can help individuals to develop good habits and break bad ones.

Components of a Habit

A habit consists of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the trigger that initiates the behaviour, the routine is the behaviour itself, and the reward is the positive outcome that reinforces the behaviour.

The Habit Loop

The habit loop is the process by which habits are formed. It consists of three stages: the cue, the routine, and the reward. When a cue is encountered, it triggers the routine, which leads to the reward. Over time, the habit loop becomes automatic, and the behaviour is performed without conscious thought.

Changing Habits
Credit: Nir Eyal

Preparing for Change

Change can be difficult, but with proper preparation, it can be easier to handle. In this section, we will cover some steps that can help you prepare for change.

Setting Clear Intentions

Before making any changes, it’s important to set clear intentions. This means knowing exactly what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it. Having a clear intention will help you stay focused and committed to your goals.

Creating a Plan of Action

Once you have set your intentions, it’s time to create a plan of action. This means breaking down your goals into small, manageable steps. By doing this, you will be able to see progress and feel motivated to keep going.

Anticipating Challenges

Preparing for change also means anticipating challenges. It’s important to identify potential roadblocks and come up with strategies to overcome them. This could mean seeking support from friends and family, finding a mentor, or seeking professional help.

By setting clear intentions, creating a plan of action, and anticipating challenges, you can prepare yourself for change and increase your chances of success.

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Implementing New Habits

Changing habits can be a challenging process, but implementing new habits can be easier with the right approach. In this section, we will explore some key strategies for implementing new habits: establishing positive triggers, bridging, forming new routines, and maintaining consistency.

Establishing Positive Triggers

One of the most effective ways to implement new habits is to establish positive triggers. A trigger is a cue that prompts a behaviour, and positive triggers can help create a positive association with a new habit. For example, if someone wants to start a daily exercise routine, they could establish a trigger by setting out their workout clothes the night before. This can serve as a visual reminder and make it easier to get started in the morning.

Create A Bridge

An easy way to establish new or change old habits is bridging. This allows us to reduce barriers to acquisition and the cognitive load or fatigue that can sometimes be associated with learning something new. Combining a new habit with an established one will use the principle of momentum to accelerate us through the learning journey.

The Learning Journey

When we are new to a skill or habit, there are four unique stages we go through. The earlier you are in the journey, the smaller the habit must be to acquire it.


The first stage is understanding why we are doing the specific habit or task. Having the context of why it’s important gives us the meaning behind our actions. This also allows us to prioritise what matters and what doesn’t in order to achieve our goal.


After gaining context of the habit we need to achieve competence and over time this task should become easier to complete with repetition and practice. We should be able to complete the task for short periods with prompting and may still be at the stage where extrinsic accountability is required.


After enough practice and repetition, we should be developing our confidence towards building or changing habits. Ideally, we should feel like we have momentum in the right direction but our repetitive actions have led to consistency. This is where a habit can start to feel more autonomous or intrinsically driven.


The ultimate test for any habit is the ability to execute it under pressure or stress. This is where we can complete the new habit autonomously, regardless of the external pressures we have in our day. Consistency has usually developed into discipline at this stage and it is simply now a part of who we are.

Identifying Bad Habits

Identifying bad habits is the first step in breaking them. Bad habits are behaviours that have negative consequences and are often performed without conscious thought. To identify bad habits, individuals should pay attention to their behaviour and the outcomes of that behaviour. They should also look for cues that trigger the behaviour and the rewards that reinforce it.

Breaking Bad Habits

To assist our efforts, we need a simple structure to eliminate unproductive habits to make space for new ones.


Remove the trigger. Conduct a causal analysis to work out what the trigger is for our bad habit. Removing the root source of the problematic habit is the quickest way to eliminate a bad habit.


Reduce the chance of the trigger occurring. If we cannot eliminate the trigger, reduce our exposure to it as much as possible.


Replace the response. If we cannot eliminate the trigger or it is simply a part of our life, replace your response with a different one. Using the if then, do this framework is effective when looking at changing habits.

Old response: I’m bored. Pick up the phone or go to the fridge.

New response: If I am bored. I will set a timer for ten minutes and wait. If the feeling is still there I will go for a walk.

If we cannot change the environment we must look to change our response to it. Depending on the amount of time the habit has been in play will dictate the effort you will need to break it. Each time the bad habit is triggered, it offers us a chance to pause and create space between the trigger and response. Over time this will hopefully increase.


Reward the positive change or response. Regardless of whether you remove, reduce or replace a bad habit be sure to reward the positive action to increase the chances of it happening again.

Quick Decision-Making Framework

The OODA Loop is a military decision-making framework. It is useful when changing habits as it allows you to make a quick assessment to know whether or not to maintain, improve or remove a specific task or habit. It’s also useful in times of stress when observing negative or bad habits.

We gather relevant data during the observation phase, simply sitting with a problem or habit helps us avoid the biases that may guide us to making the wrong decisions. Once we have enough data we can orientate on to the problem to conduct a simple casual analysis or ask five whys to help you drill down to the root cause of an issue.

Why #1: Why can’t I regulate my hunger and cravings? Because I’m tired.

Why #2: Why am I so tired? Because I’m not sleeping.

Why #3: Why am I not sleeping? Because I stay up late watching Netflix.

Why #4: Why do I stay up late watching Netflix? Because it helps me switch off.

Why #5: Why do I struggle to switch off? I’m not active or stimulated enough during the day and have a poor nighttime routine with too much screen time…

Once we have reached the root cause of the problem or response we can then decide what we are going to do about it which moves us to the act phase. These OODA Loops should be short and sharp for us to walk onto the target quickly and effectively.

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Your Attention Span

A way to work out how small your habits need to be is to understand what your attention span is.

In this age of constant connectedness, we can work out our attention span by tracking how many times we pick our phones up to check them during the day. Work out your waking minutes in the day and divide that by the number of times you check your phone.

This is how small your habit should be. Focus on small interventions to gain momentum.

Micro Habits

One of the most effective ways to change habits is through micro habits. Micro habits are small, simple, and easy-to-do habits that take only a few minutes to complete. They are easy to integrate into your daily routine and can lead to significant changes over time.

Establishing Micro Habits In Your Routine

To establish micro habits in your routine, it is important to start small and gradually build up. A good way to start is by choosing one or two micro habits that are easy to do and that you can do consistently. Some examples of micro habits include drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning, making your bed as soon as you wake up, or doing a 1-minute deep breathing exercise.

Once you have established a few micro habits, you can gradually add more over time. It is important to be consistent and to do your micro habits every day. Over time, these small changes can add up to significant improvements in your life.

To make it easier to establish micro habits, it can be helpful to create a habit tracker. A habit tracker is a simple tool that allows you to track your progress and see how well you are doing. You can create a habit tracker using a simple spreadsheet or using a habit-tracking app.

The 1-3 Formula

If you are someone who struggles with overwhelm and taking action when it comes to changing habits, the 1-3 formula will help you gain the initiative towards your goals. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Pick one goal, and build it in the SMART format

Step 2: Pick three daily action points or “micro habits” that will get you there

By using a minimalist or reductionist approach will force you to focus on what’s essential and increase your chances of success during times of high stress. Choosing micro habits allows us to pivot quickly as our decisions can sometimes be based on biases and heuristics that we only discover at a later date.

Changing habits becomes much easier when we don’t over-commit on a new journey because it allows us to avoid the sunk cost fallacy by investing too much time into something that may not be working.

Forcing Functions

Forcing functions are a powerful tool for changing habits. They are a behaviour change strategy that doesn’t give individuals an out. According to Dr. Benjamin Hardy, “You turn a behaviour you’d like to do into something you have to do.” Forcing functions are designed to make it easier for individuals to stick to their goals and overcome the obstacles that get in their way.

Forcing Function Examples

Forcing functions come in many different forms. One example is a commitment device. This is a tool that makes it easier for individuals to stick to their goals by making it more difficult to deviate from them. For example, if someone wants to exercise more regularly, they might commit to a gym membership. By doing so, they are creating a forcing function that makes it more difficult for them to skip workouts.

Another example of a forcing function is a pre-commitment. This is a tool that helps individuals avoid temptation by making it more difficult to give in to it. For example, if someone wants to stop eating junk food, they might pre-commit to not buying any junk food at the grocery store. By doing so, they are creating a forcing function that makes it more difficult for them to give in to temptation.

Finally, another example of a forcing function is a default setting. This is a tool that makes it easier for individuals to stick to their goals by making it the default option. For example, if someone wants to save more money, they might set up an automatic transfer from their checking account to their savings account. By doing so, they are creating a forcing function that makes it easier for them to save money without having to think about it.

Overcoming Obstacles

Changing habits can be a challenging process that requires a lot of effort and patience. People often face obstacles while trying to change their habits. However, with the right mindset and strategies, one can overcome these obstacles and achieve their goals.

Dealing with Setbacks

Setbacks are a common obstacle people face when trying to change their habits. It is essential to understand that setbacks are a part of the process and not a reason to give up. Instead of getting discouraged, one should use setbacks as an opportunity to learn and grow.

One effective way to deal with setbacks is to practice self-compassion. People should be kind to themselves and avoid self-criticism. They should remind themselves of their progress and focus on the positive changes they have made.

Managing Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can make it challenging to change habits. People often resort to their old habits as a way to cope with stress and anxiety. Therefore, it is crucial to manage stress and anxiety effectively.

One way to manage stress and anxiety is to practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. These techniques can help calm the nervous system and reduce stress and anxiety levels.

Replacing Undesirable Behaviors

Replacing undesirable behaviours with desirable ones is an effective way to change habits. People should identify the triggers that lead to their undesirable behaviour and try to replace them with healthier alternatives.

For instance, if someone has a habit of snacking on unhealthy foods while watching TV, they can replace it with a healthier alternative such as snacking on fruits or vegetables. By doing so, they can gradually replace their old habits with healthier ones.

Automate, Optimise or Eliminate?

When we talk about cognitive load or decision fatigue, it usually comes from having to make too many complex decisions on any given day. When we are well-rested and productive, decision-making comes easily and naturally for us. But when we are tired or we are learning a new skill we can find it overwhelming to the point that we don’t take any action.

An easy way to combat this is finding tasks in your day that you can automate, optimise or eliminate. This can bring back valuable hours or decision-making juice for the things that matter. Setting some areas of your life on autopilot when they don’t align with your goal is an easy way to help relieve the stress of everyday life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to break a habit?

Breaking a habit can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the person and the habit. According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. However, the time it takes to break a habit can vary depending on factors such as the strength of the habit, the individual’s motivation, and the strategies used to break the habit.

What are the seven steps to effectively breaking a habit?

According to the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, the seven steps to effectively breaking a habit are:

  1. Identify the habit you want to change
  2. Understand the habit loop
  3. Define your new habit
  4. Identify the cues and rewards associated with the habit
  5. Create a plan to change the habit
  6. Implement the plan consistently
  7. Monitor your progress and adjust the plan as needed

What are the proven strategies for breaking bad habits permanently?

There are several proven strategies for breaking bad habits permanently. Some of these strategies include:

  • Replacing the bad habit with a healthier alternative
  • Using positive reinforcement to reinforce good habits
  • Making changes to the environment to make it easier to avoid the bad habit
  • Using mindfulness techniques to become more aware of the habit and its triggers
  • Seeking support from friends and family

How Small Do Micro Habits Have To Be?

Micro habits should be small enough to be easily achievable, but big enough to make a difference. According to James Clear, micro habits should take less than two minutes to complete. For example, instead of committing to an hour-long workout, start with a two-minute workout. The idea is to build momentum and make it easier to stick to the habit over time.

Why are forcing functions so effective?

Forcing functions are effective because they make it difficult or impossible to engage in the bad habit. For example, if someone wants to stop watching TV late at night, they could remove the TV from their bedroom. By making it more difficult to engage in the bad habit, the person is more likely to stick to their new habit.

Can you outline the steps involved in the 21/90 rule for habit formation?

The 21/90 rule for habit formation involves committing to a new habit for 21 days, then repeating the habit for another 90 days. The idea is that by committing to a new habit for 21 days, it becomes easier to stick to the habit over time. After 90 days, the habit should be firmly established and become automatic.

What psychological principles support the process of habit change?

Several psychological principles support the process of habit change, including:

  • Operant conditioning
  • Classical conditioning
  • Habituation
  • Self-efficacy
  • Goal setting

How can one replace unhealthy habits with healthier alternatives?

To replace unhealthy habits with healthier alternatives, it’s important to identify the cues and rewards associated with an unhealthy habit. Then, find a healthier alternative that provides a similar reward. For example, if someone smokes to relieve stress, they could try going for a walk, exercise or practising deep breathing instead.

What methods can be used to ensure habit changes are sustained over the long term?

To ensure habit changes are sustained over the long term, it’s important to:

  • Monitor progress and adjust the plan as needed
  • Use positive reinforcement to reinforce good habits
  • Make changes to the environment to make it easier to stick to the habit
  • Practice mindfulness to become more aware of the habit and its triggers
  • Seek support from friends and family.

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