Get Healthy by Hacking Your Bad Habits

Understanding how habits form can help you adopt new, healthier patterns and meet your health and wellness goals.

By Alexandra Paul

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

The good news: 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 about habit formation, then I will discuss strategies for changing the habits that are holding you back and for instilling new, healthy habits.

Habits: The What and How

A habit is a behavior we repeat regularly and, often, unconsciously. We all generally have both good habits and bad habits in our daily life. For instance, a good habit almost everyone shares is brushing our teeth; a common bad habit might be always choosing a donut at a regular morning meeting. Ideally, the good habits in our life outweigh the self-destructive ones.

The body loves habits because being on automatic pilot saves mental and physical energy. 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.

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 be strengthened every time you repeat the action, until it becomes a default mode and you begin behaving without much thought—a new habit has been formed.

Unfortunately, while this process yields a helpful habit in the case of parallel-parking skill, the same principle is applied to the repeated action of reaching for that 500-calorie donut at every morning meeting.

Luckily, habit formation works both ways: just as a neural pathway for a certain behavior gets more entrenched the more that behavior is repeated, if you stop a behavior, the neural pathway weakens over time as you consistently resist the habit. This is why it’s often hard to get back into your workout routine after being on a long, lazy vacation—those neural pathways for your exercise routine weakened when they weren’t engaged regularly.

So, what about those people who seem to find it so easy to exercise or have only one serving? Are they somehow wired for healthier habits or stronger willpower? No. What they have are stronger neural pathways, established over years of repeated action, for the behaviors of working out or eating moderately. In my case, I see this in my long habit of exercising early in the morning: I go to the gym every day at 5 a.m., and I have for years. As a result, I do so automatically, without thinking or emotion. While there are certainly mornings when I wake up and think, Gosh, I’m tired; I really don’t want to exercise, the neural pathway I have developed for exercise over the years more persistently reminds me, You always feel great after you work out.

Cue, Action, Reward

Habits always present in three parts: cue, action, and reward. The cue is the signal that prompts you to engage in a behavior; the action is the habit itself; and the reward is what you get from engaging in the habitual behavior.

Usually, if we want to quit a behavior, we focus on the action by telling ourselves to stop whatever that behavior is: do not eat pizza for dinner. But researchers believe we can be more successful if we look instead at the cues encouraging us to engage in certain behaviors and then tweak them. If you’re trying to avoid pizza, instead of driving home past a favorite pizza restaurant, change your route to take you past a juice bar or other healthy option or make sure you have fruit or another satisfying healthy snack in your car.

One of my clients has devised a helpful cue for herself to keep her workouts on track: knowing she needs as few obstacles as possible on her path to working out, she puts on her gym clothes as soon as she gets up in the morning. 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 being dressed in her gym clothes has become a positive cue for her. Rather than repeatedly tell herself she has to go running, she recognizes that she’s already dressed for it and heads out the door.

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

Understanding what rewards we get from a habit is also important so that we can find alternatives that reward us in a healthier way. For instance, if eating soothes you at night after a stressful day at work, recognizing that will allow you to substitute a different behavior that calms you and feels like a treat. One of my clients who loves to read now chooses a good book over ice cream; another now takes baths to unwind.

While these success stories reflect the healthy possibilities, it is also important to know that your neural pathways will resist at first. But by consistently engaging in healthier, substitute behaviors, you will weaken that resistance. 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 cuddle up with my book? or Ah, a hot bath.

Props and Prompts

Changing does take some self-discipline, especially in the beginning of a new routine, but it is important to not rely on willpower alone because you will end up failing. Americans consider willpower a virtue—we believe we should be able to resist cookies at all times and that not getting out every day to exercise is a character flaw.

But the reality is that true lifestyle change does not arise from willpower. Rather it’s the result of many consecutive choices, day after day, prompted by cues that promote healthy routines and rewards that are life-giving.

The kind of reasonable decisions that result in long-term change 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, causing us to 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 when it comes to alcohol, our diets, and our good intentions to exercise. To counter this pattern, consider preempting the bad decisions that come from fatigue by taking steps like sneaking in a quick nap and a snack before going out to a holiday party, where it is easy to overdo it in any number of ways; or, when you go out to dinner and the waiter asks if you want bread on the table, say, “No, thanks” right away and save your prefrontal cortex from having to resist and bargain for the rest of the meal. Setting up your environment to help you avoid having to call on willpower (and your prefrontal cortex) is the smartest way to effect lasting change.

Go for Goals

Proper goal setting is another tool to help us stick with 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. And 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 a situation, so why not set clear goals beforehand about what to eat, when to exercise, and how to incorporate other healthy choices so there is no room for debate?

Because my clients come to me wanting to lose weight, let’s use that desired outcome as an example of how best to use a goal-setting strategy. Specifically, let’s see about being specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time bound.

  • If you tell me you want to lose 10 pounds, I would ask you: “What are the behavior(s) you will need to be doing in two months that will get you 10 pounds lighter?” If you say, “I need to exercise more,” I would ask you to be more specific—maybe something like, “I am running five 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 two-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 because you’ve committed beforehand. It is also measurable (you know how long you are going to run), actionable (it is something you can do, instead of something you don’t want to do), and time bound (scheduled for a certain date and duration).
  • Our conversation might then turn to food habits. If you tell me, “I will not eat chocolate,” I will respond by telling you that this is neither actionable nor realistic—it’s just a restriction that 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 might be, “When I crave something sweet, I will [insert substitute behavior here] instead.”
  • As a final step in our goal-setting conversation, I would encourage you to write down your desired outcome and the goals we discussed to help you stay on track. Each week you can revisit your goals and prioritize them by scheduling them in your calendar.

You Can Make It Happen

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 give you the same reward.

Keep in mind that at first your embedded neural pathways will be pulling you strongly toward 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. Finally, commit to clear goals to get you to the healthy lifestyle you desire.

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

Alexandra Paul is a health coach with clients all over the world. Her expertise includes certification from Cornell University’s plant-based nutrition course and from the Wellcoaches School of Coaching. She was a certified emergency medical technician for 23 years. As an actress she starred in more than 75 films and television shows and is internationally recognized for her role on the TV series Baywatch. Visit AlexandraCoaching.com for a free 20-minute consultation with Alexandra.