3 Ways Habits Form and Tips to Replace Unhealthy Ones With Healthy Ones

Habits are learned responses that are performed automatically within specific situations. They can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s important to examine your health habits when considering new health goals. This takes knowing how habits form and what tips you can use to replace unhealthy ones with healthy ones.

Habits and goals relate to one another. Goals define your desired end state or outcome. They serve as initial motivators to establish a new habit and repeat certain behaviors within a certain context or set of environmental cues. Once the habit takes and forms, the cues automatically activate the habit. This automaticity makes habits efficient, rigid, and requiring limited thinking for the behavior to occur.

Habits are also persistent, in that they become automatic in the presence of a cue(s) and are not goal-dependent. So, as a habit becomes established, the behavior relies less on goals and planning. Most people act out of habit, unless they are motivated to change and pursue a deliberate goal.

Here are 3 ways habits form to work for or against your health goals:

  1. Rinse and repeat the desired new behavior until the habit forms-Habits begin with initial repetition and exposure to environmental cue(s). Rinse, repeat the behavior over and over to establish a habit.
  2. Prevent an old habit or establish a new one through goal planning-Starting a new habit or stopping an old habit response can be challenging. Habits are a default mode for how you act. However, they don’t work alone and are impacted by developing goals, planning and making choices. Think about what you are choosing to do for your health by planning to establish a new habit and/or undo an undesired one.
  3. Why am I doing this (behavior)? People are usually aware of their habits although they are most often unaware of the cues that activate their habits. They often infer that with a strong habit, the more likely it was intended, when the opposite is true. This is why it’s important to figure out what conditions exist when a habit occurs.

Habit formation occurs not only through repetition, but with scheduled rewards. Habits, however, become insensitive to rewards over time. Planning and making deliberate choices can hinder bad habit formation. This is where treatment is of value to disrupt the underlying bad habit mechanisms and support interventions to develop effective and healthful habits.

The emerging thinking is that habits are neurobiological and occur as a result of overlapping systems of habitual and goal-directed control. Individuals do vary in their predisposition to develop habits. The good news is that you can change your habits, establish good habits and eliminate bad ones, through planning, goal-directed actions, and support where needed. The reality is, that with all the planning and intent to ingrain a new habit, habit slips will occur. This is where being prepared for how slips happen can be helpful.

Examples of how habit slips (errors of inadvertent habit performance) occur:

  • When attention is diverted-Inattention, fatigue, memory issues, and diversions in attention are ways in which your attention to new behaviors is diverted. To prepare for this, set reminders, task lists,
  • Lack of planning-This may reflect a lack of motivation to plan for unforeseen circumstances. Planning can help you avoid slip-ups. Say you’re headed to a social event and expecting many foods that aren’t on your plan. Plan ahead, eat a healthy snack before you leave, or even consider asking to bring a dish that is compatible with your food plan to the event.
  • Failure to automate or have supportive structures to guide and ingrain a new behavior-Many individuals benefit from tracking apps like diet or exercise reminders, and sleep or meditation apps that remind them when it’s time to do a specific behavior. Setting these up can be invaluable. If you don’t like tracking apps, create lists, use Post-it reminders in places like your mirror or fridge, or paper tracking tools. Following your symptoms and how you respond to old and new behaviors can reinforce the new behavior when you start to see positive effects.
  • Increased pressure/stress- The sad reality is that we often default to unwanted behaviors when under a lot of pressure or stress. If you slip, forgive yourself and get back on the plan you’ve set. It’s also crucial to know what is causing the stress and find ways to address it.
  • Addiction-Whether it’s sugar, alcohol, drugs, or other addiction, this is where slip-ups may be the toughest to conquer. Support groups, counseling, or treatment programs can be of benefit to help prevent and process slip-ups.

Unfortunately, stress and drug addiction may shift the balance of actions away from goal-directed decision-making to habits. In fact, strong habit are less likely to be goal-directed. Excessive habits may be underlying conditions like obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD). Addiction may also accelerate habit formation and impair an individual’s capacity to guide their own behavior.

So here are key takeaways to help you develop healthy habits:

  • Identify what you want to change in your health and why you want to change
  • Examine your current health habits-Make 4 columns on a sheet of paper. On the left side, list those habits that need to stop to support your health, listing them in order of which one you want to start with first. In the next column think about what environmental cues are present when the habit occurs. In the next column, list a habit that you want to start that replaces the old habit you’ve listed. In some cases, you may not be replacing an old habit, you may just want to start a new one. Then list in the last column what environmental cues that can help you to support the new desired habit.

Note that there are many ways to approach this and what is most important is choosing something that works for you. You may even want to make a different sheet for different areas of your health such as diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.   In the far right column, put environmental cues that will support that habit.

Undesired HabitUndesired Habit
Cues to Undesired Habit
Desired New HabitCues to Support Desired Habit
Snacking while watching a show after getting home from workGetting home from work, exhausted

Eat healthy dinner to avoid snacking when getting home from workRemove unhealthy snacks from snack cabinet.

Just wanting to sit and do nothing but watch a showUse an app or reference to select a healthy meal plan.
Opening snack cabinet that before turning on remoteMake a list of groceries needed for dinner. (An app may already provide this). You may want to plan for the week in advance.
Starting to snack and not being mindful of amount eating while watching show.Stop at store to buy healthy foods for dinner preparation. You may want to do this weekly.
Prepare dinner when get home from work
Turn on tv only after dinner is finished.
Avoid bringing any foods in tv area
  • Rinse and repeat the new habit-Pay attention to any tweaks that can help you be successful in getting the new habit established and modify your plan accordingly.
  • Help make your environmental cues support new healthful habits-A good example here would be removing junk food from your household and increasing the variety of healthful options
  • For challenges with knowing what to change or being unable to change on your own, work with a professional-Work with a health coach, therapist, and/or practitioner to address what habits are getting in your way to progress in your health, why you may be invested in an unwanted habit, and how you can replace it/them with new habits that are in alignment with your health goals.
  • Develop specific short-term goals as well as longer-term desired outcomes– Making specific goals that are measurable, actionable/achievable, realistic, and able to be completed within a specific timeframe can help support you on the path to success.
  • Keep track of how you are thinking, feeling, and what you are doing while you are performing a new or old habit. This will help keep you more mindful and help you bring planning and decision-making into the forefront as you take actions to promote or stop the behavior.
  • Reward yourself for taking positive steps in establishing your new health habits and achieving short term wins. Make sure that the rewards are not in conflict with the new habits you are trying to promote or adding to those other habits you plan on changing in the future. Focus on success in the process of taking those steps and avoid judging yourself against the desired longer-term outcome.
  • Be mindful of slip-ups but don’t beat yourself up. Move forward and think of structures or ways to prevent future ones.

It’s important to know that you can start small when you approach your habit changes. This can lead to big positive changes in your health. Hopefully, now that you know how habits form, you can take action to make healthful habits that work for you.


Wood W. Rünger D. Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology 2016 67:1, 289-314.

Ersche KD, Lim T-V , Ward LHE, Robbins TW, Stochl J. Creature of Habit: A self-report measure of habitual routines and automatic tendencies in everyday life. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 116, 2017, Pages 73-85,ISSN 0191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.024.

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