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Breaking Bad Habits or Creating Healthy Ones: Which Should You Prioritize?

The biggest challenges clients have are breaking bad habits and creating healthy ones. As a trainer, you may wonder, “Which do I prioritize?” In this article, you will learn the brain's role in habit formation and key factors to optimize your clients’ abilities to create habits that support the body and health that they desire. 

Learning Objectives:

  1. Identify the differences between a behavior that is routinely performed and a habit.
  2. Understand why intentions to change may to be unable to override automatic processes.
  3. Identify the factors that make it challenging to break bad habits.
  4. Determine the strategies necessary to change old habits and formulate new, healthy habits.

What Is a Habit?

Most people think of habits as behaviors that are performed on a regular basis. Psychologically speaking, habits have little to do with how often they are performed. Good habits might include running first thing in the morning or drinking home-made vegetable juice as a daily snack. Bad habits might include smoking a cigarette after a stressful day at work or indulging in too much food when out to eat on the weekends. It is irrelevant how often these behaviors are performed.  Behaviors become habits when they are performed automatically in response to a cue.

Take a look at the following common habits and the cue that precedes them:

The contextual cue

The automatic response (habit)

Finishing using the bathroom

Washing your hands

Getting in the car

Buckling your seatbelt

Someone sneezes

Saying “bless you”

These behaviors require no thoughts, no effort, and no conscious control. They are performed in response to a cue. By this definition, awakening in the morning and going for a run is a habit for some clients.  There is no internal debate whether or not to run each morning. The mere cue of waking up signals the action of going for a run. For others, running is not a habit but a conscious decision or something they force themselves to do.

As a trainer, helping clients form healthy habits may be the key to client success. Once the habit is formed, the client is likely to continue this automated response without monitoring from a trainer or anyone else and continue this behavior even after training has ended.

Think of clients who have a habit of hitting the button on their coffee maker as soon as they roll out of bed. No one needs to remind them to hit the button. They do not even have to be that awake or consciously involved in the action. Not following through with hitting the button in the morning may feel as unnatural as not washing your hands after going to the bathroom. That is the power of habit. Just like developing good hygiene habits or habits to make coffee in the morning, clients can also develop this automated response with the healthy behaviors they would like to adopt. 

The Brain’s Shortcuts

Humans are creatures of habit, which is very useful from an evolutionary perspective. Making choices is costly. It costs attention, willpower, and, in some situations, a great deal of self-control. It is more efficient to create automatic behaviors for choices that are likely to occur in response to a particular contextual cue. Each time the behavior is repeated in the same context, the brain more deeply ingrains the association between the cue and the response. As the habit is formed, the brain is freed up to make choices to novel situations, be creative, and explore (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012). The downside is that the more deeply this response is ingrained, the more difficult it is to deviate from that response when presented with the same situation.

Can Bad Habits Be Stopped?

The association between the cue and response explains why motivation or intensions may not be enough to override this automated process. No matter how badly they want to change their behavior and develop healthy habits, clients need more than positive thinking to disrupt this automated response (Gardner, 2011). Even information about the detrimental effects of continuing the behavior is not enough to make someone stop (Jager, 2003). Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit claims that habits cannot be stopped. They can only be replaced by another habit.   

In order to start making different choices and perhaps replace the habit, two things are necessary: conscious attention of the cue and willpower to choose an alternative response. Remember a habit is formed from the association between a cue and a response. To change the habit, one or both of these must be altered. This will also start to disrupt the association between the two. 

Being aware of the cue that triggers a bad habit may be easy when life is stress-free. In the midst of stress and turmoil, the ability of the brain to be aware of the cue and consciously choose a different response becomes severely impaired. The brain interprets stress as something that could potentially be life-threatening. During stress, blood flow decreases to the front part of the brain, where conscious decisions arise, and is directed to the back of the brain for survival. Regardless of good intentions, the brain is going to run its automatic program during these times of stress. 

Stress is only one challenge to overcome. Timing is another. Most clients report that they do well during the day, but they have no willpower in the evening. Some research suggests willpower is a limited resource. This would explain why new habits are easier to stick to earlier in the day when willpower is high. The theory also explains why people tend to veer off track at night when willpower has been depleted from using it all day to develop new healthy habits, stay focused at work, and meet social and familial obligations.

The mechanisms of stopping a current habit are different and more complex than those of developing a new one. The previous association must be disrupted and a new one must be formed. As discussed in the next session, habits can take much longer to create than many people believe. Given that breaking a bad habit is even more challenging, trainers may have more success by focusing on minimizing the frequency of the bad habits by using the following strategies:

  1. Limit available options. If a client wants to give up a certain food or stop smoking, have him remove the food or cigarettes from the house. If it is not available, it is less likely the client will engage in the behavior.
  2. Change the environment (Jager, 2003).  There is a reason that it is easier to make behavior changes when you move, change jobs, or go on vacation. The contextual cues you usually encounter are not there to stimulate the habit (response). While it is unlikely that clients will go to such lengths just to change a habit, smaller environmental changes may be feasible. The client who likes to buy donuts on the way to work could take a different route to work, carpool with someone else, or take public transit. All of these options would eliminate him being presented with the cue and thus change his behavior.  He doesn’t have to fight against his habit. He just needs to eliminate the cue that triggers it.
  3. Identify a substitute habit (Duhigg, 2012). By identifying the reward the habit provides, you may be able to find a healthier habit that can provide the same reward. Alcoholics Anonymous uses this strategy. Instead of participants alleviating stress through drinking, they use the companionship and dialogue with other people to help. Both responses help lessen stress, but talking with others is a much healthier one.

Maybe Developing a New Habit Is Easier…

The common belief is that habits take 21 days to form. While it would be fantastic if an automatic process could be formed that quickly, for some, it takes much longer. One study demonstrated that the average number of days to form a new healthy habit of one's choosing was 66. The range was anywhere from 19 to 254 days (Lally, 2010). While it make take longer than three weeks for most people to develop a new habit, it can be done successfully by employing the following strategies:

  1. Let the client choose what new habit to develop. Having autonomy in habit development is important, as clients are more likely to be motivated to make a change that is important to them, versus one that they were told they had to do.
  2. Choose something small. It is easier to automate a behavior if it is simple (Lally, 2010).  Additionally, clients will gain confidence with each small change they make.
  3. Plan for the new habit to occur earlier in the day.
    • If a client wants to start a workout plan, have him exercise first thing in the morning. This ensures that lack of willpower, tiredness, or obligations at the end of the day are not an excuse to skip a workout. 
    • If a client wants to eat more healthy foods, help her plan a healthy breakfast that is easy to make. Even if she cannot eat healthy the entire day, she will have consumed at least one healthy meal.
  4. Link the new habit to an already existing habit (Duhigg, 2012).  A client needs a cue to trigger a new habit and make it automatic. This is easier to do if the new habit is linked to one that the client does every day without fail. The already existing habit will create a daily reminder to do the new behavior. If a client makes coffee every morning, link the new habit (which could be taking vitamins, doing 5 minutes of meditation, or going for a morning jog) to hitting the coffee button. Keep the following in mind when using this strategy:
    • Make sure the existing habit is already strongly ingrained and one in which the client is likely to do daily (or even many times a day).
    • Make the cue an event, versus a time.  In order to make the habit one that becomes automatic, it is better if not based on time or conscious awareness (Lally, 2013 & 2010).
    • The cue should not vary (Lally, 2013). Consistency is key, as it increases the likelihood that the behavior will be automatized. If a client wants to eat more vegetables, have them choose a specific meal as the cue. This limits options and increases the chances of automating the behavior.
  5. Plan ahead. There are several planning strategies to increase client success.
    • Implementation planning: determine exactly what behavior the client is going to perform and the precise cue that will precede it.
    • Coping planning (Lally, 2013): determine what the client should do if the bad habit is performed or the new behavior is not.  By planning ahead, client stress is reduced.  Research shows that missing one opportunity to perform the behavior is not detrimental (Lally, 2010). This information may give the client some peace of mind knowing the key is to be consistent, not necessarily perfect.


The brain’s shortcuts provide challenges in both breaking bad habits and creating new ones. In the former, the current association between a cue and the response must be disrupted and a new one created. In the latter, a new association must be created by performing an action over and over again when presented with a cue. Initially, the trainer may have more success in developing new habits. Using the strategies above, trainers can structure a cue-response plan in which current cues act as a trigger for a new desired habit. This process serves to limit the effect of bad habits, create new ones, and help clients live a healthier life.

Watch the below video for more tips and information:


Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

Gardner, B. (2012). Habit as automaticity, not frequency. European Health Psychologist, 14(2), 32-36.

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666.

Gardner, B., de Bruijn, G. J., & Lally, P. (2011). A systematic review and meta-analysis of applications of the self-report habit index to nutrition and physical activity behaviours. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 42(2), 174-187.

Jager, W. (2003). Breaking bad habits: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change. Human Decision-Making and Environmental Perception–Understanding and Assisting Human Decision-Making in Real Life Settings. Libor Amicorum for Charles Vlek, Groningen: University of Groningen.

Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137-S158.

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.