Simple strategies to change your habits

Willpower is not the answer. So, instead of trying to break bad habits, aim to change them, says Tanja Shaw.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi


A large proportion of our daily actions are habits: routines that we’ve formed over a lifetime. It’s estimated that about 40 per cent of people’s daily activities are habits.  Some habits serve a positive purpose, such as locking the door when you leave the house, speaking with pleasantries during a phone conversation, or letting the dog out when he sits by the back door.

Most of us, however, have habits that we wish we could break.  Many of which revolve around food.  Examples may be having something sweet in the afternoon to get you out of an energy slump, snacking at night when you’re not hungry, or rewarding yourself with a second helping of dinner after a stressful day at work.

Habits, especially bad habits, are difficult to break.  Breaking a habit takes a tremendous amount of willpower, and willpower is a limited resource.  It’s highest in the morning after a restful nights rest, is easily eroded by stress, fatigue, anxiety, happiness, or pretty much any emotion or situation.  It wavers when someone offers you a piece of chocolate, and admits defeat at the smell of fresh baked pie.  It may put up a good fight at breakfast time; after all, most people find it relatively easy to say no to chocolate cake at 7 a.m.  But even, on a good day, you may find your willpower levels are pretty low by 3 or 4 in the afternoon.  It leaves you vulnerable to the breadbasket at dinner, the handfuls of cereal after supper, or the chips after the kids are in bed.

Willpower is not the answer.  So, instead of trying to break bad habits, aim to change them.

The lifecycle of a habit can be broken down into three parts; cue, routine and reward.  For example, the cue to lock the door when leaving the house is, well, leaving the house.  The routine is locking the door, and the reward is the peace of mind that your house and belongings are relatively safe.  In the example of the 2 p.m. treat as a ‘pick me up’ the cue would be the feeling of waning energy, feeling bored at work, or simply the fact that it’s 2 p.m.   The routine would be heading to the vending machine, office kitchen, or desk drawer in search of a candy bar or muffin.  The reward would be the short-lived increase in energy, the pleasure of having something sweet on your tongue, and a break from work.

If you want to stop the sugar habit, simply saying “I am going to give up my afternoon treat” is likely not enough.  When that cue hits, it’s hard to resist!  Your body needs something, and up until this point you’ve been feeding it candy.

In order to swap a habit, you first need to pause and recognize that your actions are just that- a habit.  Also, you must remember that you are in charge, and you have the power to change your habits.

Ask yourself the simple, but often emotional question “what do I really want?”   Think about the reward; how do you want to feel?  When that afternoon slump hits, you want something.  But, do you really want that slightly stale doughnut or to wolf down a chocolate bar while sitting at your desk?  Or, are you simply bored with the task you’re working on and need a break?  Do you need to feel re-energized?  Do you need a pleasurable experience?

Next, think of different routines that could yield the same reward.  If you are battling an energy slump and need to feel energized, would a short walk or doing a few squats to get the your blood flowing do the trick? Perhaps, a short visit with a co-worker to offer a change of scenery or a mind break?  What about going outside for some fresh air, or taking a few minutes to stretch?  If you are slightly hungry would a crisp, juicy apple do the trick?

What about the evening rummage through the pantry after your kids are in bed?  Are you looking for a reward after a long, hard day?  Are you bored?  Are you stressed?  Again ask, “what do I really want?”  Do you need some excitement to overcome boredom?  Do you just need to unwind?  Would working on a project, indulging in a entertaining novel or writing in a journal give you what you really need?

To get started, pick one habit that you’d like to change.  Identify the cue associated with the action, and the feeling that you get from the reward.  Make a list of alternative, more healthful habits you can engage in to replace that bad habit.  Rehearse the situation in your mind and picture yourself engaging in that new habit.  The more you practice the better you’ll get!

Although habits can most certainly be changed, the process is not always easy.  Do not expect to change a habit overnight.  It takes patience and persistence!  Proceed with kindness, understanding and acceptance of yourself.  Celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes.


Tanja Shaw is the owner of Ascend Fitness Inc., a private training studio.  Tanja and her team of expert fitness professionals work to inspire and educate Chilliwack residents to make positive and power changes in their lives through physical fitness and sound nutrition.  For more fitness tips go to

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