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3 Step Process to Changing Bad Habits

Let me ask you a question now that we are approaching mid 2022.

How's your New Year's Resolution going? Have you let go of your set goals from earlier this year?

Every New Year’s Eve, people all over the world identify New Year’s Resolutions. According to a recent study, only about 8% actually follow through. If you’ve ever been to the gym in January, then again in late February, you know what I’m talking about. So, why are bad habits so hard to break and good habits so hard to develop?

The first concept I need you to understand is:

You didn’t develop bad habits overnight, so you can’t break them overnight either. Creating good habits is typically the foundation to accomplishing a long-term goal.

According to Best-Selling, New York Times reporter and author Charles Duhigg, those who are successful do so by focusing on the patterns that shape their:

-physical actions

-emotional actions

-and responses

I'm going to use his philosophy to walk you through how to create and commit to a long-term goal by changing your bad habits.

First, brainstorm a long-term goal you're trying to accomplish? This could be:

-save more money for a deposit on a house or pay off credit card debt

-become more self-aware

-get in better physical shape

Now, jot down a few good habits that'll help you attain this long-term goal. If you're trying to save more money a few examples of changed habits could be:

-setting and sticking to a budget

-be worry of who you lend money to

-use more coupons for daily shopping

-put better value on money

Let’s discuss Duhigg’s three-stage process to maintaining these habits you're wanting to achieve!

1. Identify Your Cue

Duhigg proposes a three-stage, iterative process which begins with Cue. According to this process, there is a certain cue that reminds us to take a certain action. That cue could be the time of day, where you are at that moment, your emotional state, or a pattern of behavior or response.

For example, let’s use “get more physically fit” as our long-term goal. If your blood sugar drops late in the afternoon, you may be tempted to grab an energy drink or a sweet treat to satisfy that urge. Your loss in energy/feeling hungry is your cue to remind yourself to take a certain action.

Now, jot down a few of your own personal cues you find will cause a response from you regarding your bad habits. The more aware you are of your cues, the more likely you will be to change that bad habit.

2. Replace Your Current Routine

Further, Duhigg suggests that, to change that habit, you need to change the routine. Instead of heading to the snack bar or vending machine when you're feeling some loss in energy, have a glass of water and take a walk outside. Many times when we believe we’re hungry, we’re actually dehydrated so, in many cases, a glass or water or an iced tea may satisfy that craving.

Once you’ve recognized the cue and your response, the next step is to replace the routine with one that is healthier. I ask my clients to remember a time when they were successful in responding rather than reacting to that cue. Together, we develop a strategy to replace the old routine with a new one

What are some alternatives to the bad habits you currently have?

3. Gain New Reward

The last stage of this process is recognizing the reward that comes from your response.

Continuing with our previous example, eventually, the habit of drinking water and taking a walk will overtake the old habit and create a new reward that both satisfies your thirst or hunger while not packing on pounds.

Don’t forget, it’s probably taken you a lifetime to develop and reinforce your habits; it may take some time to change the routine and appreciate the new reward. What does your life look like when you've cut out these bad habits and now obtain these new rewards?

Emotional Cues and Their Rewards

When changing your routine due to an emotional cue, the reward usually is better interpersonal relations and an end to overthinking their interactions with those others. This becomes the new reward.

I use this strategy with my clients when the cue is emotional rather than physical. An emotional cue could be a colleague who pushes your buttons or a teenager who pushes your limits. I have worked with many clients to use self-awareness techniques, such as note-taking or journaling, to find out when and with whom those emotions are triggered. Most of us aren’t even aware that we have these triggers, so the first step in overcoming them is to recognize and record them.

Put It In Practice

Our work together would focus on recalling phrases or responses that could defuse the situation and help you become more present in the moment instead of negatively fixating on past grievances. These two approaches to breaking habits are integrated and mutually supportive. Ultimately, though, successfully rerouting habits requires self-awareness and mindfulness as well as the self-efficacy and commitment to change. The best source of self-efficacy is seeing or remembering a time when you were successful. Your coach can help you find that and serve as your cheerleader and accountability partner while you do.



Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. NY: Random House.

Silsbee, D. K. (2010). The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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