Good v bad habits: how we make and break them


Ever wondered why bad habits are so hard to break while good habits can be tricky to get off the ground? Clinical psychologist Linda Blair, chartered counselling psychologist Felix Economakis and professor of physical activity and health Professor Stuart Biddle explain all…

After months of isolating, social distancing, zooming and then reconnecting, it’s no wonder that you have probably found yourself adopting the odd unhealthy habit, while your healthy habits have fallen by the wayside.

Looking bigger picture, there’s a very good reason why the bad habits are more difficult to break, while the good ones are difficult to form, and it’s all to do with the psychology of human habits…

What is a habit?

A habit is any action that you do often and automatically – so you don’t usually have to consciously even think about it. A 2010 study found it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit, both good and bad, to become routine, although researchers found this varied from as little as 18 days to as many as 254 days.

How do habits start?

All habits, both good and bad, begin in the same way. “You carry out an action, let’s say brushing your teeth each morning,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair , Daily Telegraph columnist and author of The Key to Calm .

“If you repeat this action often enough at the same time, eventually a cue or trigger – for example the time of day or the sight of your toothbrush – will motivate you to do it.”

After you’ve performed the behaviour, your brain receives a ‘reward’, inspiring you to repeat the behaviour the next time you see that cue. This sequence is called the habit loop.

What is the reward?

In the case of addictive or destructive habits, like smoking, overeating, taking drugs or drinking alcohol, the action activates your brain’s reward centre, which triggers the release of a brain chemical called dopamine. This floods your body with pleasure, according to scientists .

But while this might feel good right here and now, in the long-term bad habits can leave you feeling unhappy: for example, you’re more likely to feel out of shape or have less energy.

When it comes to healthy habits, like doing a morning workout or eating vegetables at lunchtime, your brain also receives an immediate reward. “In the short-term, the reward could be that you feel virtuous and, in the case of a cardio workout, you’ll get an endorphin high,” says Linda.

If you also achieve your goal for that habit – for example ticking off a new abs workout – you’ll receive a hit of dopamine from your brain’s reward centre, just as you would for a bad habit.

“But for good habits, the overall reward for your body is smaller in the short-term than for bad habits,” says Linda. “So when putting in place a new healthy habit, the trick is to give your brain’s reward system a boost with your own short-term feel-good rewards.” Rewards could be a bunch of flowers, running yourself a warm bath or giving yourself a mental pat on the back.

The key is to understand that you have to wait longer to reap the real rewards – for example, feeling stronger, losing weight or being able to run faster. This is known as delayed gratification.

When putting in place a new healthy habit, the trick is to give your brain’s reward system a boost with your own short-term feel-good rewards

Why are we so prone to start up bad habits when life is stressful?

Because, well, bad habits are super-easy. “When faced with putting in the effort to exercise or simply relaxing, your mind chooses relaxation – it’s the path of least resistance,” says Felix Economakis , chartered counselling psychologist.

“The minute we present something as hard work, part of our brain tries to avoid it because it tries to avoid pain.

“To counteract this, you have to have a reason to over-ride the easy option, for example you want to get fitter.”

Make sure you swap a bad habit for a good habit

“The key to breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit,” says Linda. “When you figure this out, it’s like power – you can do anything. Many people fail at breaking bad habits because they just try to get rid of it without swapping it.”

So, rather than telling yourself not to do something negative, like watching TV on the sofa all evening, switch in a healthy habit at that time instead, for example a Jennis Fitness 5-minute blast .

Choose a healthy goal to turn into a habit

Before you start the new behaviour, it’s really important to plan out both what your goal is and also work out the negative effects of what will happen if you don’t keep it up. “The goal motivates you to to over-ride the brain’s natural tendency to choose the easy path,” says Felix. “It’s a clear goal for the brain to focus on.

“But, you also need to understand what will happen if you don’t start this habit. For example, will you get out of shape or put on weight? This is the punishment, and it’s also necessary to help your brain focus.”

The key to breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. When you figure this out, it’s like power – you can do anything

Focus on one healthy habit at a time

“You may want to fix everything all at once but just as you can’t multi-task, it’s best to think bigger picture,” says Linda. “Give each good habit at least a season to bed in. Then once it feels routine, you can introduce a new habit to adopt. “If you haven’t even thought about your bad habit for three days in a row, you’re nearly there.”

Make it fun

What about when it comes to exercise specifically? Like the gratification you get from some of the bad habits we mentioned earlier, the key is to ‘make exercise pleasurable and rewarding, so that you want to come back for more’, says Prof Stuart Biddle , professor of physical activity and health at Australia’s University of Southern Queensland.

“You’ll only do that if you feel good after your workout, and don’t feel as though it’s been some kind of punishment.”

Need ideas? Try connecting with a friend for your next Jennis session, play uplifting music while you exercise or workout in the park or garden to mix up your routine.

Don’t worry about taking an exercise break

New habit still not sticking? Jennis founder, Jess Ennis-Hill, has some positive advice. “If you’re struggling with motivation, remember that sometimes the best thing you can do is step back from it and take the pressure off yourself.

“Taking some time away from your training can make you come back fresher and stronger. If that’s how you’re feeling right now, enjoy the break and use the time to psyche yourself up to get back into it. If you do that, I promise you that you’ll come back rejuvenated.”

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