The Power of Habits:

In order to effectively form positive habits and eliminate negative habits is it useful to understand how and why habits form.

There are 3 parts of the habit cycle, also called the “habit loop,” which are the cue, routine, and reward.

  • CUE = something that triggers the behavior
  • ROUTINE = the habit itself
  • REWARD = what the behavior provides for you (e.g. satisfies a craving)

** Watch this short video on the 3 Parts of the Habit Loop by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.

When you are trying to change an old habit, routine is key.  When you are trying to start a new habit, the key is to focus on the cue.  The cue is something that triggers the habit on an almost subconscious level so that it occurs automatically.

A cue can be a time of day, your location, the people you are with, an event, or a feeling.  It can trigger either a positive or a negative behavior, but for this program we will focus primarily on building positive habits.  For example, your cue to eat a healthy breakfast might be an alarm on your phone or time of day (when you first wake up).  Your cue to eat well-balanced meals might be a meal plan posted to the front of your fridge or a food log that you share with your coach daily.  Your cue to consume fewer sweets might be a photo of an upcoming vacation where you want to look your best, a motivational quote, or an inspirational Bible verse.  Whatever you choose, make sure it is something that will reinforce your new, positive habit.

ACTION STEP: Identify your CUE for the positive behavior/habit you are putting into practice.

To do this, it might be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  1. What time is it?
  2. Where am I?
  3. Who else is around?
  4. What did I just do?
  5. How am I feeling?


One of the reasons bad habits are so hard to break is because we seek instant gratification or reward.  If the moment we took a bite of chocolate cake we immediately gained 20 pounds we would think twice about it!

We often focus on the short term rewards (e.g. feelings of pleasure) rather than the long-term consequences (e.g. weight gain, greater risk for illness/disease).  The same is true with good habits – we often fail to focus on the long-term effects of eating right and exercising.  If we did, it would be a lot easier to follow through with these habits.

If I told you that by setting aside as little as 30 minutes a day you could improve your health, increase your energy level, be more productive, boost your self-esteem, relieve stress, improve your strength and endurance, combat depression, elevate your mood, sharpen your memory, strengthen your heart, positively affect your relationships, and add years to your life, you’d think this would be a no brainer, right?  Yet, it is often not enough to get us to follow through because we don’t see immediate change.

To reinforce a positive behavior it is helpful to reward yourself or put something on the line to keep you motivated.

Think about your cue and your routine for your healthy habit.  Now, consider the reward for following through.  If you don’t have one, add one that is motivating for you!  Some people are motivated simply by knowing that they are taking care of their health or moving one step closer to their goals, but for others it might take more than that (e.g. something tangible).

To give you a few ideas….

  • Can you put off watching your favorite TV show until you’ve finished your workout?
  • Can you not allow yourself to have dessert, or participate in a favorite activity, until the end of the day if you stick to your goals/eat healthy?
  • Can you put $1 in a jar every time you complete your daily habit and then allow yourself to treat yourself to a meal out, mani/pedi, etc. at the end of the month?

ACTION STEP: State the cue, your routine, and one reward for following through with your healthy habit.  Pick something that is motivating to you!

The Golden Rule of Habit Change:

Habits, whether good or bad, have tremendous power over your life!  The older they are and the bigger they get, the deeper the roots grow, and the harder they are to uproot.  This is great when it comes to good habits (e.g. exercising, eating right) because the longer you practice them the more they become a part of your lifestyle!  While this also makes it harder to break bad habits (e.g. giving in to your sugar cravings), the good news is that all habits are learned – meaning, bad habits can be unlearned by making small adjustments to our daily routine.

Once you have identified the cues or triggers for your healthy habits, are working on establishing a routine, and have set up a reward system to reinforce your positive habits, you can tackle how to eliminate the old not-so-positive ones.

In order to effectively change our bad habits we have to change our routine!  Before we can do that we have identify the 3 parts of the habit loop for these habits.  Why?  Because once you learn to recognize your cue and identify the true reward for your bad habit, you can substitute a new routine for the old one with a lot less difficulty.  This is the Golden Rule of habit change!

Think about what situations prompt your bad habits to surface – these are your triggers or cues.

  • Are you an emotional eater that strays from eating healthy when stressed/fatigued/nervous/overwhelmed?
  • Do crave something sweet/salty at a particular time of day?
  • Do you go too long between meals and then overeat/eat whatever is in sight?
  • Are you more likely to eat too much/drink too much when you’re with certain people?

The simple action of identifying your triggers or cues will increase your awareness exponentially!

Next, identify your routine.  This is the bad habit itself – overeating, eating junk food, or, in the case of the video we watched on the habit loop, going to the cafeteria to get a chocolate chip cookie.

Lastly, identify the reward.  Really think about this one!  Is food really the reward, or is it just a feeling of pleasure, a change of scenery, a break in routine, an opportunity to relieve stress, or an opportunity to socialize that you really crave?

ACTION STEP: Identify the cue, routine, and reward for a bad habit you want to break.  If there are many, select the one that is most likely to steer you off track and prevent you from reaching your goals.

Breaking Bad Habits:

Now that we’ve identified the cue and the true reward (remember, it’s usually not food your body is craving, but a break in routine, stress relief, a feeling of pleasure, etc.) for your bad habit, we can substitute a new routine for the old one.

The key to eliminating bad habits is to keep the same cue and reward while inserting a new, more positive routine.

  • If it’s pleasure you seek, can you substitute a different activity that you find enjoyable, like listening to music, going outside, or calling a friend.
  • If you are eating in response to stress, can you find an alternate way to relieve stress, such as venting to a close friend, going for a walk, or removing yourself from the stressful situation?
  • If it’s been awhile since your last meal and/or you are actually hungry, can you substitute a healthier alternative (e.g. cup of flavored tea or a smoothie) for what you are craving (e.g. soda or other sugary drinks)?
  • If you need a change of scenery or break in routine, what can you do in place of your bad habit to get that?  Just like in the video, the author realized he could achieve the same reward (a break in routine and chance to socialize with friends) by merely taking a break from his desk – he didn’t really need that chocolate chip cookie!

If you habit is deep-rooted, you may need to ease in. Consider swapping out your bad habit for a healthier/less detrimental one.

  • If you crave crunchy, salty food, can you satisfy your “crunch” with raw veggies, homemade kale or sweet potato chips, a rice cake with a thin spread of peanut butter, or plain popcorn?
  • Can you replace soda with sparkling water or carbonated water and add fresh fruit for flavor?
  • If you typically drink 3-4 caffeinated beverages a day, can you switch to 50/50 (50% decaf, 50% regular) for a week or two and then slowly work your way to your desired goal so you don’t suffer from withdrawal, mood swings, and other side effects?

Ask yourself, “Where can I start small and hold myself accountable?” Don’t try to do too much as once!

For example, if you are used to lots of sugary foods and drinks, cutting sugar completely from your diet may be unrealistic.  Instead, gradually work your way to your goal.  Do what you know will work for you, but just make a conscious effort to do it!

Here is the bottom line:  Small, seemingly inconsequential adjustments to your daily routine can eliminate bad habits and make a dramatic difference in your life over time! 

Next time you encounter your cue, let it be a trigger to a new, healthier habit!

ACTION STEP: Identify the new routine that you will put into practice to turn your bad habit into a more positive one!

Conquering Cravings:

We know that all habits are driven by a reward that we crave, whether it’s feeling full, pleasure, stress relief, a chance to socialize, or just a break in routine.  We discussed how to substitute a different routine while keeping the same cue and reward to change a bad habit into a positive one.  This can be a hard thing to do and it takes time!  You may need to try a variety of different routines over a period of time until you find the one that satisfies your craving and provides you with the reward that you are truly seeking.

For example, if you did something else to break up your routine when you felt the urge to snack and that did not satisfy your craving, then you know your craving wasn’t actually for a break in routine.  If you eat healthy food (e.g. a meal high in protein and/or fiber that will fill you up without spiking your blood sugar) and find that you no longer feel the craving, then you know your reward was feeling full.  The key is to experiment with different routines until you find the one that satisfies the craving in a healthy way.

It could also be that your craving is physiological – meaning your body actually needs to eat and/or may need sugar.  We will talk more throughout the program, but your body needs carbohydrates to function, just like it needs water, vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats.  The best way to combat unhealthy food cravings is to stop giving into them and eat a well-balanced diet rick in whole, natural foods.

Sugar is highly addictive and your body can get all the sugar it needs naturally through eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other “good for you” foods without consuming baked goods and other desserts, soda and other sugary drinks, and processed foods.

We’ve now identified the cue and the reward for your bad habit.  We’ve thought about a new routine we can substitute in place of the old one to change the bad habit into a positive one.  For your next action step, complete the statement below:

ACTION STEP: When (cue), I will (new routine) because it will provide me with (reward).

Example: Instead of “When I feel bored I will eat because it will provide a break in my routine” you could say “When I feel bored I will get out of the house (e.g. go for a walk, run an errand, take the kids out to the yard) because it will provide a break in my routine (without turning to food!)”

Additional Strategies for Putting Positive Habits into Practice:

Check out these blog posts for additional strategies on overcoming cravings, avoiding emotional eating, building consistency:

Now it’s time to start putting your NEW ROUTINE (OR HABIT) in place!  Click HERE to go back to the main page.