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Get Healthy by Hacking your Bad Habits

Habits make up 40% of our daily life, so if you want to feel and look better, incorporating more healthy habits into your life is key. How can we get rid of our unhealthy behaviors and replace them with routines that improve our life?

Let me be clear: Habits are not set in stone, and they are very much in our control if we understand how they work.

So let’s begin with some background on why we even have habits, then I will discuss strategies on how to change the ones holding you back and how to instill new, healthy ones.

A habit is a behavior we repeat regularly and unconsciously. We have both good habits and bad habits in our life- what we hope is that the good habits very much outweigh the self destructive ones! Good habit: brushing our teeth. Bad habit: eating the donuts at work when you want to lose a few pounds.

The body loves habits because being on automatic pilot saves mental and physical energy- this is a strong biological truism. Imagine if you had to think about each movement necessary to parallel park your car – it would be exhausting and very inefficient! Instead, you hardly think how to turn the wheel, which way to look and when to apply the brake because you have done it so often it has become routine.

So when the body finds something you do from which it benefits, like clean teeth or getting into a parking space, it will lay down a neural pathway in the brain that will remind you to replicate that behavior. This neural pathway will strengthen every time you repeat the action, until it becomes a default mode – you begin to do the behavior without much thought, and a new habit has been created. Unfortunately, this applies to eating 500 calorie donuts too, since the body has not changed much from the Stone Age when any kind of food was considered worth starting a habit over.

It goes both ways: just as a neural pathway for a certain behavior gets more entrenched the more that behavior is repeated, if you stop the behavior the neural pathway weakens and so does it hold over you. This is why it is often hard at first to get back into your workout routine after being on a long, lazy vacation – those neural pathways for your exercise routine weakened from desuetude.

Those people who seem to find it so easy to exercise or only have one serving? They don’t necessarily have more willpower than you- what they have are stronger neural pathways for the behaviors of working out or eating moderately.

The reason why I get to the gym at 5am is that the automaticity of my habit means there is little thinking and little emotion- “Gosh I am tired, I really don’t want to exercise” might run through my head as the alarm goes off, but the neural pathway I have developed for exercise over the years is more persistently reminding me, “You always feel great after you work out”.

Habits always present in 3 parts: Cue, Action, Reward. The Cue is the signal before that prompts you to do the habit. The Action is the habit itself. The Reward is what you get from doing the habit. Usually, if we want to quit a behavior, we focus on the Action .-no I cannot eat pizza for dinner no I cannot eat pizza for dinner – but researchers believe we can be more successful if we look at the cues encouraging us to engage in certain behaviors, and tweak those. I have a client who puts on her gym clothes as soon as she gets up in the morning, because she knows she is more apt to get her run in if she is already dressed for it. Once the gear is on, running is almost inevitable so this is a positive cue for her. Setting herself up so she has healthy triggers works better than concentrating on the habit itself – I have to run this morning, I have to run this morning.

If you are trying to avoid pizza, is driving home past Pizza Hut a cue that makes it easy to break your diet? Or are you too hungry to think straight – should you have a healthy snack before you leave work so your low blood sugar does not cue you to drive to the nearest fast food joint?

Knowing what triggers us to do our habit gives us control over it, because we can avoid the cues that do not serve us, and focus on the cues that benefit our long-term goals.

Understanding what rewards we get from a habit is important, so we can find alternatives that give us the same reward but in a healthier way. Do you use food to soothe yourself at night after a stressful day at work? By recognizing this, you can find a substitute that calms you down and feels like a treat – I have a client who now loves a good book over ice cream, and another one who now takes baths to unwind

At first, your neural pathways will be pulling you back to eating, but you will weaken those pathways by trying new healthier behaviors instead. Once you find something that works for you, repeat it often to cement it in, and pretty soon when you come home your first thought won’t be “What can I eat to make me feel better?” but perhaps “When can I climb into bed with my book?” or “Aaahhh, a hot bath”.

Changing does take some self-discipline, especially in the beginning of a new routine, but it is important not to rely on willpower alone, because you will end up failing. Americans consider willpower a virtue – we believe should be able to resist cookies at all times, and not having a vigorous exercise routine feels like a character flaw. I want to make it clear: Willpower is b***s*** when it comes to acquiring true lifestyle change. It is much more effective to set up your days with cues that promote healthy routines, and rewards that are life giving.

Let me detour for a moment to debunk any adulation you might have with Willpower: Willpower is the ability to make the right choice for the long run. These kind of reasonable decisions are made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The problem with the prefrontal cortex is that it gets tired. When this happens, self-discipline goes out the window and the more impulsive part of our brain takes over – then we feel out of control. Stress, lots of decision-making, low blood sugar and being physically tired all contribute to weakening our willpower, which is a normal day for most of us! This is why we are more apt to lose control at night with our drinking, our diets and our good intentions to exercise- our prefrontal cortex is tuckered out.
This is also why it is good advice to take a nap and eat a little bit before going out to a holiday party where it is easy to overdo it in any number of ways.

When you next go to dinner and the waiter asks if you want bread on the table, say No and save your prefrontal cortex from a lot of little decisions during your meals (Should I have a piece with my soup? No, it’s too many calories. 5 minutes later: Maybe I will just have some of the crust. 10 minutes after that: I should finish that piece I took the crust from, otherwise it will go to waste. ). If you have battled about the bread in your mind, you will be more likely to order dessert! Setting up your environment to help you avoid having to call upon willpower (and your prefrontal cortex) is the smartest way to make lasting change.

Proper goal setting is another tool to help us stick to healthy habits: Goal setting is vital if you want to make long term changes because it forces you to be clear about what you want and how to get there. Also, when you set goals you make decisions about your behaviors in advance. Studies show that we all overestimate what smart choices we will make in the midst of a situation, so why not set clear goals beforehand on what to eat, when to exercise, etc., so there is no choice!

Since my clients come to me wanting to lose weight, let’s use that desired outcome as an example of proper goal setting. If you want to lose 10 lbs, I would then ask you: What are the behavior(s) you will need to be doing in 2 months that will get you 10 lbs lighter?

If you say, “I need to exercise more”, I would ask you to be more specific. A more helpful goal would be “I am running 5 times a week for at least 45 minutes “.

Then I would ask you, What are the behaviors you can do this coming week that will help you get to this 3 month goal?. An example of a clear goal (which should be even more specific since it’s for the following week) is ” On Monday and Thursday right after work, I run on the treadmill at the gym for 30 minutes”. This goal totally rocks because you do not have to engage your prefrontal cortex over this again, since you’ve committed beforehand and it is so specific there is little left to wonder about. The goal is also measurable (you know how long you are going to run) and actionable (it is something you can do, instead of something you don’t want to do -“I will not eat chocolate” has no behavior you can do. It just leaves you with a void, in which you will obsess about chocolate and then end up eating more than you originally planned. A more constructive goal in his area is “When I crave something sweet, I will [insert substitute behavior here] instead”). Your goal should also be realistic (the main reason we fail at our New Year’s resolutions is we do too much too fast and burn out or get so overwhelmed we quit) and have time specifications (Monday and Thursday, in this case).

Writing down your Desired Outcome and your goals will help you stay on track. Decide on your goals each week and prioritize them by scheduling them into your calendar.

In sum, you can break your bad habits by substituting them with healthier behaviors. Then, strengthen the neural pathways of the new, healthy habit through repetition. Be aware of the cues that lead you to undesirable behavior, and avoid those triggers! Understand the true reward you are seeking through your habit and find a healthier behavior that will still give you the same reward. At first your embedded neural pathways will be pulling you strongly towards your old ways, but persevere and you will create new pathways that lead you to better behaviors. Protect your prefrontal cortex so it helps you make smart choices. Lastly, commit to clear goals to get you to the healthy lifestyle you desire.

You have broken habits before, so I am confident you can do it again with a habit that is now challenging you. Follow these simple rules and you will get to your desired outcome more easily than if you haphazardly try to change.

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