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5 Steps to take a permanent U-turn on unhealthy habits

Posted in 1. Mental health resources @ Nov 23rd 2017 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Making Headway
5 Steps To Take A Permanent U Turn On Unhealthy Habits Red

Have you got a bad habit going? Something that is not only failing to add anything to your life but may even be subtracting from it? Something you want to change but don’t know how to? Follow this logical and science-backed approach to show this habit who is boss.

We all have them – things that we do that we know are not particularly helpful or sustainable, things like eating chocolate when we are sad or snapping at people when we are angry or having a glass (or three) of wine to relax. Many of these habitual behaviours feel good in the short term but don’t contribute to a happy and fulfilling life in the longer term.

Our unhealthy habits often creep up on us, we drift into them rather than making a clear and conscious choice.

Maybe it started by having a glass of wine or a beer or two to help relax at the end of your working week. And then, you had an extra busy day and you had some alcohol to calm yourself and bring yourself down and before you knew it, having a relaxing wine or beer was your get home from work routine. A positive association had been created between alcohol and relaxation.

The longer we maintain an association between a certain cue (environmental, such as getting home, or emotional, such as anger or sadness) and a certain behavior (wine, chocolate, snapping at people), the harder it is to break the habit. But break the habit we can.

Your habit is a neural pathway that can be changed

Your habit is simply a neural pathway that has become fast and automatic through use and positive reinforcement. The pathway can be dampened down and replaced by a more healthy, considered habit – we can do a U-turn on a habit that we have decided is not workable or positive in our lives. And we can approach this using the same five steps that we used to create a healthy habit.

5 Steps to changing your unhealthy habit

1. What and why do you want to change?

What exactly is the bad habit that you want to lose? What is its impact on your life? Imagine your life without it – how would it be different? How would it be better? Clearly understanding what you stand to gain from adopting your change provides motivation when the old bad habit is calling.

2. Set yourself up for success

  • Make it achievable.
  • Express it in a way that demonstrates what you stand to gain from the change.
  • Write it down.

If you have a vague thought that you might stop smoking and drinking and start exercising for 30 minutes each day, you are setting yourself up for failure. You are taking on too much, your brain hurts at the thought of all that it is going to lose and it is only a notion swirling around in your head rather than a concrete commitment.

Compare this to your chances of success if you decided that you wanted to have a clearer head and a healthier body by replacing your week-night after work alcoholic beverage with a 15 minute mindful walk with your dog. You will feel good and your dog will be happy! You write a big reminder and post it on your fridge or have it on the home screen of your phone. Now we are talking!

A concrete, achievable and positive commitment has been made.

3. When are you going to do it?

When we are wanting to do a U-turn on a habit, we need to insert our new healthy action in where the old less desirable one was. So, if the trigger for the old habit was coming home from work, then this is where the new habit needs to go. Put your walking shoes and the dog lead near the door when you go to work and as soon as you arrive home, immediately put your shoes on and take your dog for a walk. Or alternatively, you can approach the old cue in a different way – maybe by going to the gym or meeting a friend for a walk and chat before you get home.

4.How will you reward yourself?

The best reward is achieving your goal – doing what you set out to do and realizing the benefits you were looking for. The body’s reward system is activated, you get a hit of dopamine with the associated buzz and motivation boost. And you build confidence in your ability to choose nourishing and sustainable actions into the future. 

The specific activity that you choose will also bring benefits. If it makes you feel more positive (exercise, meeting friends), you are reaping more dopamine. If it makes you feel calm (eg mindfulness, nature), you are likely to be turning up the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and turning down the stressy sympathetic.

5. What is your better than nothing plan?

A habit is only a habit if it happens each and every time that the prompt or cue occurs. Now that can be difficult given our busy lives! This is where the better than nothing plan comes in – a minimum action that we commit to when the prompt occurs, even on the most ridiculous of days. Instead of the 15 minute mindful walk with our dog, our better than nothing plan might be spending 1 minute mindfully patting our furry friend, really tuning into the sight, the smell, the feel of his coat, the sound of his breathing etc and calming our mind. Our dog may not enjoy it quite so much but our brain will be happy because it has ticked off the new habit, albeit in a minimalist form. We have avoided the trap of all or nothing thinking that might tell us there is no point continuing with our change because we missed a day or two.

Making a change doesn't have to be hard.

Making change sounds pretty easy when you step it out like that, doesn’t it? Insert a new and achievable behavior at the old prompt and reap the rewards and benefits. Like starting a new habit, it will take at least 6-12 weeks to wire in the change – to make the U-turn at least as well-travelled as the straight road.

Do you have a bad habit that you would like to address? Today is a good day to start. Go on, follow the steps and you can do it.

About Cathy

Cathy is a coach and well-being consultant/educator with Make Headway.  Prior to this, she worked as a veterinarian, trainer and manager in private, university and corporate practices for 25 years.  Please visit her site at to make an enquiry about coaching or to find out more.


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