How to Make That Healthy Habit Strong Enough to Stick

Do you walk into the movie theater and immediately have the urge to eat popcorn?

Do you reach for the glass of wine when you’re cooking dinner?

Do you have to fight the desire for ice cream at 9pm?

Man pouring white wine in glasses while cooking with woman at kitchen

These are all habits, common ones, that can be hard to break. Once you learn why they’re so hard to stop and why you feel like such a compulsive repeat offender you can make that knowledge work for you. The same use of cues and triggers that put a bad habit there can work to stop it, replace it, or start a new one. Today I look at how to use cues and triggers to your advantage.

Whether we call them cues, usually the term used to refer to something that enhances positive habits, or triggers, something that causes you to do something you perceive as a negative habit, the point is that something comes before the actual action you’re trying to start or stop.

Your job if you want to make a change is finding those cues and triggers to manipulate them to your advantage.

In the example of the movie theater, the environment is the trigger. Just walking in, not to mention the smell wafting through the air can make 51% of us movie-goers buy popcorn.

Time of day is also a cue. If it’s time to cook dinner and you reach for a glass of wine or you’re watching a movie in the evening and a commercial break sends you looking for the ice cream scoop, time of day played a part in your habit.

I’ve got a few tips for you if you’re trying to make exercise a regular habit or want to stop that bed time ice cream fat trap. It’s a matter of flipping what works so well to seduce you into a bad habit to induce your adoption of a new one.

Woman Exercising and Watching Television in Living Room

Change your environment:

  • Rearrange the furniture. Some of those old habits may fall away just by shifting your experience in the same space.
  • Separate the TV from food. If you have a refrigerator in the TV room: rethink that.
  • Remove foods you don’t want to eat from your environment. If you can’t completely because others in your environment aren’t yet onboard with your healthy changes, remove them from site.

Woman Exercising on a Stationary Bike with a TV

Increase the convenience of the right thing:

  • Exercise: Place the exercise bike in the bedroom (or kitchen, in my case)
  • Exercise: Put the foam roller or yoga mat in the TV room.
  • Eating: Put a bowl of fruit and single servings of nuts on the counter.
  • Water: Place water bottles on the counter, near the door, in your go-bag.
  • Arguably, this may not be a convenience, but a dog that requires walking or volunteering at the shelter can immediately increase your activity level.

Woman Exercising with Television

More cues that trigger the habit you want:

  • Create single serving containers of foods you typically overindulge in.
  • Use smaller plates and bowls.
  • Fill plates and bowls at the stove or counter instead of at the table.
  • Keep a consistent schedule. Set your daily exercise time, even if you fill that recovery day time with stretching, you’ll be making it “exercise” time.

Decrease any resistance to your new habit:

Enhance your skill by –

  • taking lessons
  • meeting with a trainer
  • following videos
  • or taking a course

so it isn’t so “thought” heavy. I’ve got a great personal example of this.

When I began seriously riding my bike for fitness and triathlon training at 40, everything about it was new. On the other hand, I had been a lifeguard since I was 16 and a runner since I was 18. Most often I would default to running. It was both the most convenient and least skill reliant. Swimming was the next most frequent thing I did. Having access to a pool at work anyway, it was pretty conveniently located.

Biking though held a lot of obstacles for me. I found the shorts (the first time you try on bike shorts you literally feel like you’ve got a diaper on), the shoes, pumping up the tires, putting the bike on my bike rack, preparing the water bottles, and nutrition was all a chore. That was all even before I had to deal with the fact I wasn’t yet comfortable with my clip in shoes, wearing a helmet, shifting gears. I did not feel comfortable on a bike.

I realized while writing this that I still have to deal with overcoming certain obstacles. My exercise time cues come in the morning most often. I’m also pulled to use my most creative, focused brain time in the morning. I have to admit I play a game of delayed gratification too many days. I know I’ll move somehow. So I’ll keep working for longer than optimal for my ideal workout. Then I run into the need to eat a little more, feel like I’ve got less time, and so even for a fitness professional who loves to move, cues and triggers exist!

Getting to a swimming pool requires packing the bag, driving to and from, and hoping there’s a lane. Biking I do much more frequently, but I train a lot indoors, or as odd as it seems, outdoors on my deck. Even during perfect weather because I can eliminate the drive factor and not have to use as much time.

I did not feel comfortable swimming or biking regularly. Until I did. You too can feel more comfortable with weights, or swimming, or yoga, or cooking with gluten-free foods for instance, if you’re trying to begin a new health habit. Acknowledge where you’re at and get some help setting your new “normal” with cues and triggers!

And one more tip for you is this,

Flip, don’t just assume you’ll skip:

If you have something you want to stop doing, like the ice cream, or the popcorn, you’ll need a substitute. Replace a habit you want to change for a new healthier habit.

  • For instance, flip your soda consumption with sparkling water with lemon and a few drops of stevia.
  • If you’re drinking coffee all day, shift to tea.
  • If you’re used to dessert after meals, replace them with berries and coconut cream.
  • I used to be addicted to hard candy. Right around the time my son was born I was nearly constantly putting a hard candy in my mouth. I sold myself on the idea it was helping me keep my voice lubricated for all the fitness instruction, courses I was lecturing, and clients I was seeing. Oh, and it helped me drink tons of water. That much was true. But the amount sugar I was getting must have been like having an IV drip of sugar constantly going in! He ended up helping. My thoughts were totally occupied and so were my hands. Now, a baby is a pretty drastic measure to take. But if you’re used to snacking in the evening, take up a hobby. Busy your hands with knitting or scrapbooking – something that you can get totally absorbed in.

Now, don’t just go away without workshopping a little. I want to challenge you to change. What is one cue/trigger that’s either keeping you stuck in a bad habit, or a new cue/trigger you can add to help adopt a new behavior?

Add it to the comments! You’ll be helping someone else by your share too!

de Bruin, M, Sheeran, P, Kok, G, Hiemstra, A, Prins, JM, and Hospers, HJ. Self-regulatory processes mediate the intention behavior relation for adherence and exercise behaviors. Health Psychology 1(6): 695-703, 2012.
Orbell, S, and Verplanken, B. The automatic component of habit in health behavior: Habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology 29(4): 374-383, 2010.
Wansink, B. From mindless eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiology and Behavior 100(5): 454-463, 2010.
Wood, W, Tam, L, and Witt, MG. Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88(6): 918-933, 2005.
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