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2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits

This is Part 3 in a 3-part series on Habit Eating.

(1) How Habits Can Control Your Eating
(2) 3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits
(3) 2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits


Habits are automatic behavior cued by context (where you are, what you’re doing), performed without intention, and with minimal thought. In Part 1 of this series I described how they’re created and why. In Part 2, I described three strategies for blocking or interrupting habits that have already been cued. In this third and last article in the series, I will describe the most effective way to break a habit – avoiding the cue – and how to create new, positive habits.

There are thousands of blog posts about how to break habits and create new ones. My advice will be a little different. As with the previous articles in this series, the strategies I recommend are based on controlled studies written by psychologists and published in refereed professional journals.

Avoid Habit Cues – Take Advantage of Transitions

Hands down, experts agree that the best way to break a habit is to avoid the contexts that cue the habit. There is also consensus that the most effective way to do this (some say the only way) is through major life change: moving to a new town, entering college, graduating from college, changing jobs, getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, etc.

During these natural life transitions, cues are gone, you stop acting out of habit, and you think about everything you do rather than acting automatically. Everything is open to reevaluation. You try new things and decide what you like and don’t like. You meet new people, make new friends.

Retailers love people in transition because they are the most open to trying new brands and products. To identify them, they buy lists, or hire statisticians to create multivariate models. And then they shower them with advertising in the hope that they will establish a new habit that includes heavy shopping at their store.

A time when you have no habits is a time when you are creating new habits. No one knows this better than retailers, but you should know it, too. If you are aware that you are establishing new habits, you can act deliberately and not squander the opportunity. You have a choice: will you create good habits or bad habits?

Take, for example, the transition of marriage. Both men and women tend to gain weight in the first two years of marriage, with women gaining more. New habits are established with marriage, and apparently they typically involve eating more. It’s hard to say what new habits cause the weight gain without more information. But if you thought about what you were eating as a newlywed in terms of new habits, you probably could identify the bad habits and avoid them.

This same principle goes for other transitions. When you become a parent, for example, you don’t have to create a new habit of eating your child’s leftovers. Life changes drastically when a child is born. Be especially careful at times like these not to fall into bad habits that will plague you long term.

If your life isn’t in transition, it’s not as easy to avoid cues. But there still can be opportunities. Look around you and think about your patterns. Here’s a common one. Remove snack foods from counter tops. Just seeing cookies and crackers is a cue for many people. When they are in view, you take a handful. When they are in a cabinet, you don’t.

In Part 2 I talked about how to block habits after they were cued – for example, how to sit in front of the TV without mindlessly eating. It’s much easier without the cue. If you have a habit of eating in front of the TV, watch less TV. If you have a habit of eating while surfing the internet, find something else to do. Take a walk, call a friend, or clean out your closet.

They have a saying in AA: "Don’t go to a barber shop if you don’t want a hair cut." Newly sober people are strongly urged to avoid the places where they used to drink and the people they used to drink with – their habit cues. AA doesn’t teach newly sober people how to go to a bar and not drink. They say, "Don’t go to bars!"

Tip: The easiest way to break old habits is to avoid the contexts that cue them. Use transitions to your benefit.

Create Positive New Habits

How do you create a habit? It’s not just repetition, as many people think. It’s been said that if you do something every day for 30 days it will become a habit. That’s not necessarily so. Here’s why.

Habits are learned as people pursue goals in their daily lives. In the learning phase, the "habit loop" has three parts: a stable context, a routine, and a reward. The loop must repeat many times before it’s stored in habit memory. In a naturally created habit, the reward causes you to repeat the loop – i.e. the routine is very rewarding. Over time, the context becomes associated with the routine. Once the routine becomes a habit, the reward becomes irrelevant and the routine is cued only by the context (see the popcorn study in Part 2). But the reward is a crucial part of habit formation.

There must be a strong and consistent sense of reward for a behavior you’re repeating to be stored in habit memory. This is because storage in habit memory requires dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. If the routine doesn’t feel rewarding to you, if it’s not pleasurable on some level, it will never become a habit. Nothing you do over and over while hating every second of it will ever become a habit.

I discovered this in my own life – the hard way. Some years ago, I decided that I would develop a habit of jogging every morning. I’ve never liked jogging because my aerobic capacity has always been limited, even as a child, despite being a normal weight and getting regular exercise. I’ve since learned that aerobic capacity is genetically determined and you can’t improve it beyond a narrow range. But I didn’t know that at the time and I thought I could improve.

Every morning for three months I got up and jogged (as best I could) for two miles. I never improved, and I absolutely hated it. The feeling of insufficient oxygen in my body was agony. After three months I decided I was done with that, and never looked back. No habit was created, despite many repetitions, because I found the behavior completely unrewarding. There was very little dopamine in my brain after jogging.

If you want to establish a new habit, don’t suffer through something for 30 days with the idea that it will magically stick. It won’t. If you want to make a new habit of daily exercise or healthy eating, then you need to find a way to do it that’s fun for you and fits your lifestyle. That is the piece that is missing from most articles about creating new habits. I’ve seen a lot of focus on tricks for making you repeat the new behavior. That’s okay, but if the behavior is intrinsically rewarding, it won’t be that hard to get yourself to repeat it. If it’s not intrinsically rewarding, you can repeat it forever and it won’t become a habit.

Tip: If a behavior is not rewarding, it will never become a habit, no matter how often it’s repeated.

This is the third and last article in the series on Habit Eating. I hope it was useful!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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12 comments to 2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits

  • Sundara Sundara

    Excellent! This makes so much good sense, and can be applied to NE issues in so many ways.

    Thanks as always, Sheryl!

    best, Sun

  • Karen Ligocki Karen Ligocki

    how did ice cream become my habit..or is that emotional eating?

  • > how did ice cream become my habit..or is that emotional eating?

    It depends on the context!

    - Sheryl

  • Sheri P Sheri P

    Looks like some creativity may required in forming new habits! Some don’t seem to come with an immediate enough reward built in- for example the eating more nutritiously in S4 doesn’t usually lead to immediate amazing health.
    Good article with “food” for thought.

  • Ani Ani

    I am thinking the same as you Sheri. Can you give some examples of how you would attach a reward to a desirable habit you are trying to develop please. Thinking of non eating issues to start with. Say I want to keep my house tidier and decide to create a habit of doing 15 minutes cleaning everyday. How do I make this a habit or is the reward of a clean house enough once I have done this for 30 days? As Sheri says eating is similar as the reward is delayed.

    Great article, thanks.

  • Mike Mike

    Sheryl,

    Habits are developed because, in your mind, you get something out of them. Negative habits always provide me with something I want as well as something I may not want. The key for me is understanding what I want.

    When I engage in an activity such as jogging or walking for that “magic period” of 21 days, it can become a habit. If however, my mind has thoughts of “I’ve never liked jogging,” “my aerobic capacity has always been limited” it won’t. If any athlete takes the position in their mind that they probably will not be victorious, what is their chance of success? If, on the other hand, the athlete decides that training everyday will give them what they want, victory, they are more likely to develop the habit of training. It boils down to “what do you believe.”

    I can do this, the more I do it, the more it will be a positive for me. This is who I am now, a jogger who is getting healthier from it every day is more likely to develop the new habit than, giving themself reasons that they really don’t want to do this and heres why I won’t.
    Your subconcious mind, that part of you which rules, will only give you what you want.

    One must want the change and expect the change for the change to happen. Being a jogger for the sake of saying I am a jogger is probably not enough for me to continue my habit of jogging.

    On the days I lack the energy to jog, I walk. Its a habit and I benefit from it by assisting my metabolism to rev up, strengthen my heart muscle, lower my cholesterol, be more agile, help my digestion, sleep better at night and just give me a positive feeling of good. These are the rewards for which I jog. There are other things I could do, but because its easy to get up and go, I developed the habit of jogging. I can’t imagine how it could ever be “completely unrewarding.” (Reframe)

    When I miss my exercise, I feel uneasy like forgetting to brush my teeth. The next opportunity I have, I get that exercise in. Whats past has nothing to do with today and tomorrow. From the standpoint of losing weight, jogging in itself is not going to burn that many calories. I no longer jog to lose weight. In fact, I no longer eat to lose weight. The positive habits I create are all going toward living healthy. So, I have also developed habits of healthier ways to eat. I know what I am doing when I work on developing new healthy habits is benefiting me and thats what gives me the ability to change, to make those new habits permenant.

    Some of my old beliefs kept me from developing these new healthier habits, kept me stuck in who I thought I was. I had to investigate those beliefs and question some of them. Some of my beleifs were outdated and no longer applied to who I am now.

    “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
    ― Henry Ford

  • Jeff Seehusen Jeff Seehusen

    Sheryl,

    Thanks for this post – and I agree wholeheartedly that avoiding the contexts that cue bad habits are the best way to get rid of bad habits. One bad habit of mine is wasting hours of my life online. I’ve deleted my Facebook account twice in the past two weeks, but now I am doing it for good. I am also getting rid of my iPhone and stuffing my home PC under my bed – if I need to use the computer, I will show up early to work. Instead of expecting myself to magically muster the willpower to not pick a low-hanging fruit, I will cut the fruit tree down entirely.

    Now, the only problem I have with this approach, on an intellectual level, is that it seems completely antithetical to “trusting yourself.” Instead of exercising the power to choose, I am hiding from something and hoping that it doesn’t come into my life. And it can backfire. If I try and control my environment too much – which I have done recently, throwing away any food at home which I’ll overeat – I’ll feel like a caged animal and try to escape by indulging in the behavior in an even worse way.

    The unfortunate thing about my bad habits is that they’re usually cued by my own negative feelings towards myself – and that’s a context that’s very difficult to avoid. Perhaps I am conflating habit and addiction here?

  • Mike,

    I’m glad you enjoy jogging, but I don’t think anybody can talk themselves into enjoying anything, and if you don’t, you just have a “bad attitude”. People do have physical limitations and personal preferences.

    - Sheryl

  • Jeff,

    I don’t think you understand what is meant by “habit cuing”. You’re mixing up the habit – the behavior – with the cue. The cue is the context in which the behavior occurs. The cue for wasting time online isn’t the computer you use to do it. The cue for emotional eating isn’t the food itself. And internal negative emotions could not be a cue for a habit. Internal negative emotions are a trigger for emotional eating, but not a cue for habit eating. Emotional eating and habit eating are not the same.

    Habit cuing is a particular thing, based on neuroscience. This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. I explain the science of habit formation in Part 1. If you’d like to understand what is meant by habit cuing, go back and read the series from the beginning. Then you can start to analyze what is truly cuing your online surfing – it’s not your computer. And you’ll see how habit eating and emotional eating are different.

    - Sheryl

  • Mike Mike

    I understand and agree with you that not everyone enjoys the same exercise for various reasons, physical limitaions certainly being one of them. That of course would not be a “bad attitude” but, as you say, a personal preference.

    I do know that people are able to “think” themselves into enjoying things just as some people “think themselves” out of enjoying things. I am not speaking of attitude but rather, positive thought, positive influence toward what you want. Of course, if one does not really want it then thats another story. It must first be realistic and achievable.

  • Sheryl,

    Finding this site all began with a google search for the best way to season cast iron. How circuitous is that? Have read several articles and plan to return soon for more. I’m very interested in the topic of weight loss and recently finished The Power of Habits which was recommended by the CEO of Weight Watches on his blog. Thanks for such well researched helpful information.

  • Marta Lively Marta Lively

    In response to Ani, I have a system for rewarding myself for not habit eating. I put a large attractive jar on the counter in the kitchen. Every evening when I usually eat, but don’t, I drop five dollars into the jar. At the end of the week I buy myself something nice. For the first week I dropped $20 a day in the jar since I really needed the incentive. Having a large visual reminder is very helpful, its not enough just to mentally set aside the money. I use the money to buy “troll beads” and have a bracelet that I wear each day that shows my progress in breaking my habit, and that I value myself enough to treat myself well. During the day I look at the lovely beads and feel both proud and cared for.

    Hope this helps!

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