Building new helpful habits

by | 18 Jun 2024 | Unleashing You, Wellbeing

Habits are deeply embedded in our unconscious mind.  Therefore adopting new habits requires deliberate action at a planned and conscious level.

Building new habits

Although habits are firmly embedded and can be very stubborn, they can be changed.  Change happens by breaking the unhelpful habitual cycle and creating a new one.

How long to change a habit?

My view has always been that it is as long as it takes before the behaviour becomes unconscious e.g. you always take a break at lunchtime without the internal negotiation and reminders being needed. 

Research gives different time frames, and demonstrates that it is linked to the complexity of the habit and the level of reward.  Therefore, getting a definitive answer is unlikely. 

It becomes more complex when we consider wider aspects of reward and motivation theory as the reward must be meaningful and of value to us, otherwise no amount of time will embed a habit.

Habits and our wellbeing

What is interesting from a wellbeing perspective is that developing one habit that benefits our wellbeing e.g. a daily walk, has been shown to be a stimulus for developing other beneficial habits e.g. eating well.  Where one habits leads to other changes they are known as ‘keystone’ habits.

When considering wellbeing, often unhelpful habits have been a direct response to stress.  When we are highly stressed, we are not in a resourceful state, and with fewer resources are more likely to draw on unhelpful coping strategies i.e. those that give a momentary reward but have an overall detrimental impact.  If we feel stress at work and know that chocolate gives a brief respite to it, then we can see how the trigger, behaviour, reward cycle works – but only in the short term.  What is needed is a wider approach to reducing stress.

Another interesting element of habits is our lack of awareness of some of them.  Perhaps we have a habit that irritates someone else and we are unaware we are doing it?!

Identifying areas for change

  • Which habits are beneficial for your wellbeing, and you want to ensure you continue? For example, getting enough sleep.
  • Which habits have a detrimental impact on your wellbeing, and you would like to change? For example, endless scrolling on your phone
  • What new habits would it be helpful to embed to increase your wellbeing? For example, taking a break every day at work.

Changing a habit

The cycle of cue, behaviour, and reward gives us the framework to develop new habits. By changing elements of the cycle we can achieve different outcomes.

We might need to try adopting different approaches before achieving lasting change.

Three steps to new habits

  • Identify the trigger  – When an unhelpful cue or trigger is identified, what change can you make to remove or reduce it?   When a helpful trigger is identified, how can you make this more accessible?
  • Identify a different behaviour  –  What is the new behaviour you wish to adopt? Be specific and set it as a clear actionable behaviour.
  • Identify an appropriate reward – What would motivate you in this behaviour? This can be small and immediate, or part of a long-term reward.  A mix of the two for bigger changes is beneficial with the idea of stepping stones towards a bigger reward.  Ensure the reward is appropriate and congruent with the habit e.g. a rest or watching an episode of a TV series, rather than an unhealthy snack.

Setting ourself up for success

    Habits can be changed through practice and breaking the current habit cycle.  Where change is hard is is often linked to other areas of self-acceptance, self-kindness, and any limiting beliefs we might hold.  These are all elements of the Unleashing You programme and you can find more here.

    You can also read on to the other blogs in the series on Understanding Habits  and Making Habits Stick. 


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