How to change a habit

This year on the blog I have been writing quite a bit about change. Results from the annual PWK reader survey 2013 showed that many of you wanted to make changes to your life in 2014. 22% of readers wanted to change their exercise habits and 9% wanted to change their diet in 2014.

For the series on exercise I have called upon experts to share information and for others to share their stories. The series is aimed to help those who wanted to make a change to get going and make solid change before the year is out. (You can see other posts in the series here.) And of course we have had the wonderful nutritionist Katie Rainbird helping readers change their diets, through the Change my plate series.

But today I am going to share with you how I have made some pretty big changes in my life and review a fab book called The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg.


Changing habits can be hard to change. As I have noted on the blog before I am creature of habit. Routines are my security blanket and I have a tendency to stick with what is working for me. This means I can end up doing the same things for long periods of time.

The longer you do something the more ingrained the habit is to your daily life. But it is possible to change. But unlike what you may have read and heard, I don’t think will power is the key to change. Will power is limited and change is ongoing. My efforts in trying to make changes that relied on will power have failed. The will power ran out and I reverted back to my old habits.

I have however managed to make some successful and permanent changes to my life, so I will briefly go through some of them, highlighting why I think I was able to sustain the change.

Stopping smoking

I smoked from the age of 17 until I was 24. I smoked Winfield Blues and on a non socialising day (read non drinking alcohol day) I would smoke around 20 a day. That is a lot. That caused a lot of damage to my body. On a day when I would go out at night, you could add another 15-20 depending how long I was out for.

I had tried to give up smoking many, many times, but ended back up smoking within a matter of weeks (sometimes days). In fact when I stopped smoking on 3rd January 1997, it was one month before our wedding, but I had however promised my fiancé I would give up smoking much earlier so all the money I saved could go to the photographer I wanted who was outside our budget.

In the end after a number of failed attempts I stopped smoking one month before our wedding. I thought the goal of the wedding photographer would be enough to motivate me to give up smoking but it wasn’t.

What was enough though was a change of mindset and a change of word. You will notice the heading of this section is “Stopping smoking” and I refer to my earlier attempts as giving up smoking. For me the difference between these two words was significant and it was a concept I learnt through Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking.

This was a short book I bought to help me with my desire to change my smoking habit. One of the main reasons I bought it was it let you smoke while reading it! I don’t remember now all of what it said and I no longer have my copy, but what I do remember was, it helped me retrain my thinking to realise that I wasn’t giving up anything. In fact I was gaining much – my health, more money and I was no longer having my days dictated by where I could duck out to have a cigarette.

From the minute I had my last cigarette, I saw myself as a non smoker. Previously when I wasn’t smoking I would look at smokers and think how lucky they were to be having a cigarette and I would feel deprived. With my mindset as I walked past the smokers huddled in the cold as I enter my building to go to work, I would think those poor people who were having their movements dictated by toxic cigarettes.

I have not had a single puff of a cigarette since 3rd January 1997 nor have I wanted to. Stopping smoking was one of the best things I could have ever done for my health and I hope that time has healed some of the damage I caused my body through my smoking years.

Changing my diet

I have written previously about how I made significant changes to my diet here, but it was really just a timeline of the changes I made. The changes I made were quite significant, in summary:

  • from low fat, high carb, lots of chocolate and lots and lots diet coke
  • to high fat, gluten free, processed sugar and processed foods free, lots of tea

There was two distinct steps to this change. The first was to start eating a whole food based diet and stop with processed foods, with the exception of diet coke. I just couldn’t get my head around doing it all at once.

The thought of making such significant changes and suffering from caffeine withdrawal headaches from no diet coke, made it seem too hard. By breaking it down to a change I felt I could manage to achieve some success, I felt comfortable to proceed with the change.

It also helped that I stumbled across this post Quiz: Are You an “Abstainer” or a “Moderator”?. I suddenly realised that I was an abstainer. While you can see this simply as a label, I saw this as a key to manage my own behaviour. I was the sort of person who would open a block of chocolate and consume the whole thing in a relatively short period of time. For me it is easier to have none.

Finding out what your personality type can be key to making changes to your habits. I know many moderators who are happy to have a single piece of chocolate and I know others who can have an occasional social smoke. That is not me.

Having decided upon my new whole food approach, I had no problem sticking to it. It is just how I eat now. Just like when I stopped smoking, I don’t look at others eating chocolate bars, bowls of pasta or fast food and wish I was having it. I am happy with the way I eat and am happy for others to eat the way they want to as well.

My next change was to stop drinking diet coke. I took pretty much the same approach to diet coke as I did to cigarettes (they are both quite toxic!). I knew I had a Paleo challenge coming up at my gym and if I was going to do it I would have to drop diet coke.

This not only gave me some time to get my head around it, but gave me time to start on a new habit to replace it – drinking tea. A friend who knew I was worried about the caffeine withdrawal side effects suggested I start drinking green tea. The theory being that if my brain could register even some caffeine, it would stave off the worst of the caffeine withdrawals.

And it worked. In the lead up to the challenge, I didn’t ease back on my diet coke consumption. Quite the opposite. I decided I was drink up as much of my stash as I could, peaking at around 6-7 cans a day!

But the reason the tea worked was two fold. Yes it took away the caffeine withdrawals and but it gave me a new routine. Drinking diet coke had become habitual, one with lunch, one for a pick me up in the afternoon etc.

My routine now became a green tea in the morning and then herbal teas replaced the other times I would drink diet coke. Again just like the cigarettes, I have not had any diet coke since stopping, which was over a year ago and nor do I feel like I want to have any.

Exercising regularly

Reading this blog you may think I was always a regular exerciser. This is not the case. In fact there is an interesting correlation between my smoking years and my exercise. At around 16 I dropped team sport as I picked up a part time job and it wasn’t really until after I had stopped smoking and had become pregnant that I started exercising again on a regular basis.

I became fitter with each child and maintained an exercise routine of 2-3 days a week in between babies and pregnancies. It wasn’t until I finished breastfeeding the youngest in 2011 did I start to increase the intensity of exercise I was doing.

Then in the summer of 2012 I made a decision to get fitter and start to run further. Up until this point the furtherest I had ever run was 10km.

I wrote up a schedule that included four exercise sessions a week and make a no excuses commitment to myself. I would make sure I had my exercise gear out ready the night before and I would get up when my alarm went off no excuses.

This was hard at the start. Sometimes I really did not want to get up, but I did. I had set myself little goals. My reward for achieving these goals would be feeding my obsession with Lululemon running gear. This reward worked not only to get me up to meet the goal, but to keep me going. Having nice gym gear to wear was something that made it more appealing to me.

Like so much of what we do, over time, by sticking to my routine, it became a habit. Exercise just became part of what I did each day as I increased the number of sessions I did to six times a week.

Now if my work means I will have to miss out on an exercise session, I don’t think “awesome, a day off”, I try and work out how can I squeeze in some exercise somewhere else in the day!

The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg

I loved The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg. It was through reading this book was I able to analyse why some of my attempts to change my habits worked and some didn’t.

The following is how the book defines habits as highlights the key premise of the book. Habits are:

the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of neurology. And by understanding how it happens,  you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.

I found the book to be a great read. The first part looks at the habits of individuals, Part Two looks at the habits of successful organisations and Part Three look at the habits of societies. While I bought this book to look at my own habits and to help me make some changes, I found parts two and three a fascinating read, inspiring in many ways and sometimes a little disturbing in terms of how large corporations use our habits in their sales process.

The book notes that scientists generally believe habits emerge because the brain is always looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

How the brain does this is through what Duhigg describes as The Habit Loop:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Duhigg also explains that for habits to truly stick there needs to be a craving. And of course the problem is that your brain cannot tell the difference between a craving which will lead to a good habit like going for jog or a bad habit like smoking. It might them seem dangerous for the brain to operate in this way, but without these type of habit loops imagine how overwhelming everyday life would be.

how to change a habit

So how can you use The Habit Loop to change your habits? According to Duhigg you need to do a couple of things:

  • Change the routine. The cue (the craving) stays the same and the reward, but the routine to get to the reward changes. To do this it means you need to really look at why you do what you do. If you have a habit of eating chocolate in the afternoon, why is it? Are you hungry, bored or tired? Knowing why you do it allows you to replace the routine with something else that will give you the same reward. If you eat chocolate because you are tired, try taking a five minute walk in the fresh air for example to re-energise.
  • Belief. You need to believe that you can cope/live without the old routine.

If you look at the examples above of where I have successfully changed my habits, many of these elements are present:

  • Belief was the key factor in why I stopped smoking compared to all the other failed attempts at quitting. I knew I could live without cigarettes and my life would be better for it.
  • In changing my diets, I found new foods to nourish me and changed my weekly routines to prepare food so I could have these foods to enjoy without it being to difficult.
  • With my exercise I stuck at it for long enough so it became a habit.

Don’t think however that I still don’t have habits to change as I do! But for change to be sustainable for me it needs to be a work in progress. I am going to start a new night time routine to change my habit of going to bed too late. I will update in a few months and let you know how I am progressing!

Are you working on changing a habit at the moment? Do you want to change a habit?