5 Techniques for Forming, Changing, and Breaking Habits

Being mentally strong is not enough!

Rasmus Ursem
Sep 5 · 9 min read

The donut is screaming “EAT ME!”. You resists as you tell yourself “Not today! You are stronger than that.” and return to working on the computer. Around 2 PM, you put you teeth in the cake and tell yourself it is okay as you have been working hard and deserve it. Despite of this, you know you have once again given in to one of your bad habits…

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Giving in to a bad habit. Courtesy of Jeff Siepman (Unsplash)

You have almost certainly been in the scenario described above or something similar. Like me, you have probably also wondered why you end up giving in despite best intentions and concrete effort. You have most likely also wondered how to get rid of a bad habit and build a good one.

In short, a habit is a sequence of actions that is repeatedly started by an external or internal trigger. Internal triggers are thoughts or feelings such as the sugar craving described above. External triggers are cues in the environment that start the habit sequence, e.g., seeing the cake on the table.

In habit management, we want to be able to:

To be successful, you will need to use one or, more likely, several of the following techniques. I’ll use two classic examples as illustration of the techniques — a desire to eat less sugar and another target of exercising more.

Change the environment

We humans are lazy — or in more diplomatic terms, we humans prefer the path of least resistance. We take the elevator a couple of stories up even though the stairs are faster. We drive the short distance to the groceries store even though we know that it will be difficult to park nearby and walking is faster.

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Easy path over the rugged terrain. Courtesy of Frans Van Heerden (Pexels)

In habit management, we need to put this insight to our advantage by making it difficult to carry out bad habits and removing obstacles for executing good habits. Thus, successful habit building can be achieved by changing the path of least resistance towards a a more desirable pattern of behavior.

Example 1 — eat less sugar

To reduce your sugar intake through the environment, you need to make it difficult to get your hands on the candy bar. Personally, I have realized that such high energy candy will be eaten if I keep it in my house. Hence, I know myself well enough to avoid having it around and it is basically a matter of not buying it. Thus, it is a decision I take in the supermarket. In case you have a stronger character than me, then I would at least recommend to keep it out of sight. Another little trick may be to put it in the freezer so it will have to defrost before you can eat it. This will give you time to decide if you should actually eat it or toss it in the bin.

Example 2 — exercise more

To get the environment to work for your exercise scheme, you will have to make it easier and more desirable to put on the trainers and go for a run, take your bike out of the shed, or go to the gym. Thus, you need to have the gear sufficiently accessible, available, and ready to be used. Muddy running shoes or a treadmill buried under a pile of boxes does not represent the path of least resistance. It may also help to have the gear that turns the exercise into a good or at least a better experience. Until recently, I didn’t run during the winter months as I felt it was too cold. Investing in a good running jacket helped on that and now it is not so unpleasant.

Create or remove triggers and anchors

As mentioned in the introduction, habits are initiated by a internal or external trigger. Internal triggers for bad habits can be hard to remove (e.g. a craving for sugar), while it may be easier to alter external triggers (e.g. visually seeing the candy). An external trigger is a physical object you see or hear that has something to do with the habit. For example, seeing your running shoes will remind you of running and it may trigger your desire to go for a run.

In habit management, we are therefore interested in altering the triggers to work for more beneficial habits. To do this, you of course need to identify the triggers of the bad habits you want to scale back and invent triggers to initiate good habits you want to boost.

An anchor is a seemingly unrelated object, situation, feeling, or sensory input you associate with the habit. Anchors is a central concept in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and anchoring is a deliberate activity you perform to create an association between two otherwise disassociated objects, situations, feelings, or sensory inputs. Anchoring is a powerful technique for triggering good habits. Admittedly, the line between triggers and anchors are not so sharp. However, the key point is that habits can be triggered by other things that are not necessarily related to the habit. Whether you think of it as triggers or anchors is less important.

Example 1 — eat less sugar

This is mainly a matter of removing visual triggers. At home, we have dark chocolate and a bit of candy for the kids, but it is kept out of sight. Instead of “visually triggered candy”, we have a fruit bowl and a small bowl with nuts centrally placed on the kitchen table.

Example 2 — exercise more

I try to incorporate a bit of exercise into my daily life. Specifically, I have placed a post-it note trigger on my office wall to remind me to raise my elevation desk so I stand for some hours every day. I also have a training rubber band lying around so I’m inspired to pick it up and do some exercises.

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Raise the table trigger, “Her” means “Here” in Danish. Author’s own photo.

I have also created an anchor where I do 20 push-ups every time I go to the bathroom as I figured I needed a consistent way to ensure a minimum number of daily push-ups. Having done this for some months, I almost feel guilty if I’m in a hurry for a meeting and have to leave the restroom without doing the push-ups (or if the restroom is too small to do push-ups).

Replace bad behavior by better

This method is also a bit of an NLP mind trick. Basically, you are overwriting old neural wiring that triggers bad behavior by new neural wiring promoting better behavior. The trick is to find a viable substitute that your brain will accept without resorting to the old behavior. Thus, going straight from high calories sugary candy to raw broccoli is most likely going to fail.

Example 1 — eat less sugar

I have already hinted what we have done at home. We used to have a fair amount of candy and chips. Now we have a fruit bowl and a smaller bowl with nuts and almonds. On top of this, I eat dried dates. They are quite sweet, but also have a lot of fibers instead of fast carbs. Another trick is to replace high volume candy by other healthier sweets that you cannot eat that much of. For example, raw licorice and super dark chocolate, which can be rather bitter.

Example 2 — exercise more

I believe in embedding exercise into my daily life to ensure a base level of daily exercise. I take the stairs if possible, I sometimes deliberately walk to the coffee machine further from my desk, and I bike or walk between the buildings at work instead of going by car. Thus, a number of little changes that add up. I did think about getting a robot lawnmower, but I’m hesitating as it would rob me of a mile of walking each week.

Start tiny and grow gradually

This approach is basically about starting so tiny that you can certainly complete the reduced version of the habit you ultimately want to build. Tiny means TINY — the smallest possible version of the habit you want to build. For example, You start with one push-up and continue until you master that. Then you gradually increase until you reach the level you want to achieve. It sounds almost silly to do one single push-up, but this is a way to tell your brain that you can do it and you’ll get the little victories along the way.

Example 1 — eat less sugar

This is about scaling back a bad habit. One approach could be to weigh your typical serving of candy, cookies, or whatever form your excess sugar has. Then you shave 1/100 off that weight each day, or maybe 1/20 if you want to progress a bit faster. The trick is to take off so little that your mind won’t notice it. In case your brain starts to complain (aka crave), you can try to halve the size of each bite. You’ll be surprised how much taste there is in sweets and reducing bite size is a way to have a full experience at less calories.

I have used the scale back approach with sugar and salt — the latter is a major cause of hypertension (too high blood pressure).

Example 2 — exercise more

I have already mentioned the push-up example, but this can also be used for many other forms of exercise. If you want to walk 10.000 steps a day, then start with a trip around your block or house. If you want to stand up more at your office desk, then start with 5 minutes.

Join a group

This approach is about finding someone to hold you accountable and help each other carry out the desired behavior. There are two types of groups — journey groups and destination groups. A journey group consist of people at the same level with the same desire for a change. In contrast, a destination group consist of people at different levels where the less skilled aspire to become as good as the more skilled group members. The group may be a formally established group where the members opt in to the group or an informal group where your group membership is established by your presence alone. For example, you join an informal destination group by going to the fitness center as you aspire to become fit like the other people there, but may not have made any agreements with anyone at the gym to track your progress.

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Strong group rituals help build the good habits. Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio (Pexels)

Example 1 — eat less sugar

This is really hard to do without the support of the people you share your daily meals with — most likely your family. Thus, a desire to eat less sugar is doomed to fail if you don’t form a group around the project. This will most likely be a journey group unless you are the only one carrying too many pounds. I have formed a journey group with my wife on this where we have agreed to cut back on our sugar intake and boost healthy eating.

Example 2 — exercise more

Joining a group to exercise more may also be an effective way to boost your daily exercise. I mentioned the informal destination group above, but I have also formed a formal journey group with my wife where we run 4–5 times a week. Our little group is actually both a journey and a destination group as I run a bit faster than my wife. To compensate, I take a slightly longer route so we end back home around the same time — who “wins” that day is a good motivator for both of us. :-)

Becoming a successful habit builder

Knowing how to change a habit is the first step, but it doesn’t really count before you see some change. I will recommend to get started by making three lists of habits. The lists should contain habits you want to get rid off, habits you want to change, and habits you want to build from scratch. When done, pick the easiest one from each list and start there.

Good luck on your journey to become a better version of yourself!

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Courtesy of Min An (Pexels)

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