Why do habits stick?

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Behaviours are things you do; habits are behaviours that you get into the ‘habit’ of performing time and again.

I’ve written a lot recently about the importance of building healthy habits in order to find your balance. That’s because health and fitness aren’t permanent, they improve as your health behaviours do and they worsen if you start to spend less time down the gym and more time up the pub.

Essentially, all of my work with clients is in helping them work out how they can increase their healthy behaviours, decrease their less healthy ones and turn these new actions into habits. But what is it that makes this most likely to happen?

The three bits of habits

Habits share three things in common:

1) They’re triggered by certain cues

2) After the cue, the behaviour (doing bit) occurs

3) They stick long-term because there’s some sort of reward for doing them

Cues (and behaviours that follow)

When you see a traffic light change to red, you hit the brakes and come to a stop (hopefully)! The colour of the light is the cue for your habit of pressing the middle pedal.

Cues come in various forms:

  • Times - for example, it’s likely that most of you will brush your teeth just after getting up and going to bed, and when we eat certain meals and types of food is cued by the time of day

  • Places - the dancefloor in your favourite club is likely where you’ll bust your moves, less likely is that you’ll get your groove on in the Post Office (unless you’ve watched the Full Monty recently)!

  • People - it could be that your mate at work is the trigger for you to go for a pint after work, or your nan could be the trigger for cake consumption. Equally, you might have a running or gym buddy who’s a trigger for healthier habits

  • Emotions - food and mood for example are inexorably linked. In fact, there are two types of hunger - homeostatic hunger is what you feel when you actually need calories; hedonistic hunger is when you want to eat because of your mood, it could be stress, tiredness, being upset or even feeling great that triggers you to chomp down the calories.

  • Rituals - it’s Monday, you get up in the morning and go to work. You don’t debate it, even though you’d like to, you just go. Going to work has become a ritual and you have plenty more things that you just do because you always do. Some are routines that you do on autopilot because it’s much easier to spend most of your time not having to think about what you’re doing - driving being a great example. You change gear when you need to, indicate when required and know to put the handbrake on when you park.

Every day you’ll receive thousands of cues that lead you to respond in an almost automated way. You’ve programmed yourself to carry out specific behaviours in response to each one, and they’ve become habits.


Rewards come in many guises; medals at the end of a race, the tingling of your taste-buds when you eat something you really like, the sense of satisfaction when you complete a challenging task like decorating a room, the happiness you get from helping others, that sense of relaxation when all the things on your to-do-list have been ticked off, or the buzz on your phone that lets you know your friends have contacted you.

They can be tangible things or feelings; and they may not always appear obvious. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what they are, as long as you feel they bring some gain, something positive to your life. When a behaviour leads to a rewards, much like in the original Pavlov’s Dog experiment, we repeat that behaviour hoping for and eventually expecting, the same outcome.

This reward mechanism is what makes certain habits so addictive; drugs, alcohol gambling, sugary foods - they all lead the brain to fire off a series of powerful chemicals including neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids. The latter have a role to play in mediating the effects of cannabis, hence their name and are also thought to play a significant part in ‘runner’s high’, the state of euphoria that many people feel from exercising. And by the way, the reason why they can become addicted to it and over-train - they love the reward so they repeat the habit regularly.

The three bits of habits in action

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Take brushing your teeth as a simple example of a habit that sticks for most people. What are the cues? Well, early in life when the habit isn’t as well embedded, one of the main cues is your mum pestering you to brush your teeth. There’s also the visual reminder of the toothbrush and paste often sat in the glass in front of the bathroom mirror. You’re bound to see it when you visit the bathroom in the morning and before you go to bed, and it acts to remind you what you need to do. There’s also the time of day; you probably don’t brush your teeth when you go to the loo mid-morning do you, but the same visual cues are there, it’s just not the right time for the teeth-brushing thing.

On the rewards side, there are a few reasons why you continue to brush your teeth. The smile is a hugely important part of body language, hence why marketing companies have been able to sell us more and more things that help to keep our teeth white and our breath fresh. We like to be seen to have white teeth, it’s a sign of beauty and health; we want fresh breath when we’re talking to colleagues at work, when we’re with our friends and if we’re out on a date. So brushing your teeth might reward you with confidence, with self-esteem, with a successful outcome at a job interview, or on that date! You’re also rewarded by doing something to move away from the fear of having yellow teeth, or worse still, no teeth at all. Fear of cavities and gum disease is a big part of the reason why we brush twice a day. Then of course there’s the knowledge that your mum would be proud of you!!

What does this mean for your health?

We often focus our efforts on the specific health behaviour that we want to work on; drinking less alcohol, going to the gym more often; eating more vegetables, but maybe we spend less time on the other two parts of the habits triad - the cues and the rewards.

Try the following:

1) If you have a specific behaviour that you’d like to turn into a habit, create a cue for it. Here are a few ways you might do that…

  • Anchor it to an existing habit. Your physio gave you some calf raises to do to help with that sore Achilles. She suggested doing them twice a day but you just haven’t gotten round to doing them. Try linking them to something that you know you’ll definitely do twice a day, like for instance, brushing your teeth.

  • Use visual or audio reminders. Post-it notes, phone alarms, placing fruit on your desk at work or a water bottle on your bedside cabinet. Better still, put stuff in the way - kit bags in front of the front door, fruit on your car seat so you have to move it to sit down; anything that makes it impossible to ignore.

  • Get others to cue you - go to exercise classes with a friend so that they’ll text to ask if you’re going or pair up with a work collage to act as support partners in the fight against the office cake culture.

2) Next, spend some time ensuring there’s a strong reward system in place for your new behaviour…

  • List the rewards that you’ll get from doing the behaviour and remind yourself of these regularly. You can even print them out and stick them somewhere you’ll see them - that way they can act as both the cue and the reward

  • Be accountable to someone - and make it someone who you want to impress. Being able to tell them that you’ve been doing well will fire off all this mood-boosting chemicals, rewarding you with your own happiness high

Get these two things in place and the behaviour itself is much more likely to happen, until eventually you perform it instinctively and then you’re in the habit.

Stay balanced,

Paul :-)