How to Change a Bad Habit ?

It has often been said that nutrition is 90% of the game and training just 10%. The truth is, nutrition and training are equally important for various reasons, and it’s not just a 50/50 game because there are many other equally important habits or rituals paramount to the long term health of clients.

Sleep, socialization, types of training, behavior change, flexibility, mental health, and, yes, nutrition are vital aspects of overall health. Truth be told, what may be most important is how to make any of those better for you practices permanent habits.

Adopting new habits and breaking old ones can be a challenge. Too often, when I come across professionals who instill their goals on clients – eat this, don’t eat that, or do this, don’t do that.

But just like every training client isn’t immediately put under a barbell to do a set of squats, not everyone who walks into the gym will have the same outcome goals or strategies to get them there when it comes to nutrition.

When we think about the habits most of us have, many are well-established. Every day you make automatic choices that require little consideration or thought. You simply do them. It’s great when these habits work for us and help us to live the lives we desire, from the simple choices of remembering to shower and brush our teeth, to the more complex ones.

But what about the habits that don’t align with what we want to achieve? What about the client who really wants to lose weight but can’t stop late-night snacking? Or the athlete who says they are committed to improving performance but keeps grabbing drinks with friends several nights a week?

Reminding ourselves how these choices impact our ability to reach our goals, isn’t sufficient. Instead, we have to learn how to unwire the habit and rewire a new one to create changes that support our goals, and that can last. Changing a pattern takes conscious and repeated effort.

Our subconscious can run the show for as much as 95% of the choices we make each day (Wyer &

Bargh,1997). This unconscious part of the brain, also referred to as the automatic, fast brain, or system one, helps us preserve mental effort for critical thinking and problem solving for the more critical decisions.

The fast brain is the one that steps in and quickly decides what to do based on experience or emotion or impulsivity. It’s the one that when you feel a surge of stress at the end of a long day, declares, “I. Need. A Drink!”

The conscious part of the brain, also referred to as the slow brain or system two, is much more rational and logical. This part of the brain considers the pros and cons of the situation, the potential long-term and connects those choices to long-term goals. The slow brain is the one that can plan for how you might handle that stressful situation where you want to turn to a drink and what you might choose instead. So which one “wins”?

It depends on what system you’re using at the moment the decision is made. There’s not a “winner” or “loser” per se, but there are ways to move toward a more conscious awareness of the choices we make and why we make them, and how to make it less likely that our fast brain will rule the roost.


Step 1: Cue

You and your clients are in the driver seat, and that is all based on the habits we build and how we build

them. The brain is capable of vast change after all, through neuroplasticity and active behavior change when we put our minds to it.

In The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2014), research from MIT that discovered three elements that can be consistently found in any habit that we have – cue, routine, and reward. More recently, in Atomic Habits (Clear, 2014), habit formation includes one additional element, craving. It is this description of the habit loop that we’d like to use to define how we form habits. While both books are an excellent additions to your toolbox, below is an abbreviated version of the formula used to shape behaviors over time.

A cue is anything that brings about a craving. Cues can include a time of day, a person, feeling or mood, a smell, or even a specific environment. For example, the simple act of waking up can trigger a cascade of habits or routines. Maybe you wake up, go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, brush your teeth, get dressed, etc. Your cue? Time of day or for most people. The alarm clock told them it’s time to wake up.

Step 2: Craving

A cue is Sticking with our time example above and waking up, the craving – or in other words – the motivation behind the habit is what moves someone into action. You aren’t motivated necessarily to brush your teeth, but rather the feeling you have from a clean mouth. Or you may not crave coffee, but rather the feeling it provides to you. Cravings differ for each person. For some, they may crave to feel awake; for others, they may crave thefeeling of “attacking the day.” In general, cravings occur because we want to change our internal state, so what that looks like for your clients may differ.

Step 3: Routine

Next, we have a routine. The routine is the actual habit you perform (brush your teeth, drink the coffee, etc. if we’re sticking with our time example). Think about what your usual response is to your cue in the morning and what craving you fill. And also consider how many responses are possible. Some may choose to wake and go to the bathroom. Others may get up and head to the kitchen to start the coffee before going to the bathroom. Others may wake and lie in bed for a bit, scrolling through texts and social media. If we’re talking about 100 people, there could be 100 different routines to the same cue based on experience, preferences, environment, etc.

Step 4: Reward

Finally, we have a reward. On one level, the reward is that the craving is gone. We wanted to change our internal state, and we successfully achieved that. We like satisfying the discontent our brain creates. On the other hand, the brain is hard-wired to notice rewards from our behavior – so we’re also paying close attention to what other rewards the response has created. If the reward also has other benefits – the coffee was delicious, we can now kiss our spouse with our fresh breath, etc.… it’s more likely we’ll repeat this cycle over and over.