How to change: 9 steps to breaking bad habits for good

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Struggling to stay on track and stop bad habits? Changing your behaviour is easier than you think, two leading experts explain how.

Personal change targets are likely to trigger one of two reactions. Either “Help! How on earth can I keep this up?” or “Yawn, I’ve tried that before and it never works”.

If you’ve attempted to lose weight, cut back on booze or give up smoking, but never quite stuck with it, we hear you. That’s why we’ve called on behaviour-change experts to help you get to the bottom of what’s really driving your bad habits – and help you achieve your goals.

1. Make micro-changes

Early in the year we all want to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. So we aim high by signing up for Dry January, a new gym membership and probably the latest diet too. But that’s a mistake. “Doing too much, too soon, wears out your willpower muscle and sets us up for failure,” says Dr Heather McKee. “Habits are a complex mesh of behaviours – and you can’t resolve them all at once. You must work on untangling them one by one until the habit knot is sorted.” So start with the habits that are easiest to change first, as research shows that these smaller, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. “Each time you accomplish a micro-change you get a sense of satisfaction and this spurs you on to stick with your goals,” says McKee.

Do it

Set yourself one small change each week. For example, plan a healthy snack at 4pm to avoid the biscuit slump, or aim to walk 100 more steps on your fitness tracker each day


2. Ask “Why?”

Our resolutions often look something like this: lose 10lb, give up red wine, keep the house tidy. Sounds sensible, right? But if you want to stay on track, these kind of generalised goals won’t help. Why? Research shows we’re more likely to change our habits when we’re motivated by “intrinsic” goals that are linked to higher values. Dr McKee explains, “Examples could be that you want to have more energy to put into your work, or be a positive role model for your children.” And intrinsic means “good for the soul”.

Do it

Ask yourself what improving your health or eating habits will help you achieve. How will it help you feel? What type of person will it make you?


3. Have a plan

Willpower alone rarely works, says McKee. Having a plan, however, does. Known as “implementation intention”, a plan helps you anticipate triggers, and figure out other ways of dealing with them. If you eat in response to stress, ask, “What would be a healthier way to deal with this stress?”

Do it

Next time you have a run-in with your partner, rather than reaching for a glass of wine or diving head first into the fridge, try taking a few deep breaths, put on some favourite music or call a friend instead.


4. Learn from lapses

Research shows that people who manage to stick to long-term health goals have a “learning” view of failure. When they fall off the wagon for example, or overeat, they don’t berate themselves but instead look at the circumstances and learn from them. They pick themselves up and start again. “Most of us think we can simply go from A to B without deviating from the path,” says Dr McKee. “But life doesn’t work that way. Improving our habits is more a process of trial and error, and learning what works for you.”

Do it

Next time you give in to temptation, don’t waste energy beating yourself up. Instead, examine why you gave in. How were you feeling? Tired? Bored? Emotional? Hungry?


5. Identify triggers

If you’re drinking too much coffee, a typical “ingredient led” approach would be to switch to decaf or exert willpower to resist drinking coffee. “However, this surface-level change will become too difficult to maintain,” says Dr McKee. “Eventually you’ll be back to drinking the same amount of coffee, feeling like you’ve failed again.”

Do it

Try looking at what’s triggering your coffee habit – in what circumstances are you drinking it, what time of day and in what location? Also ask what coffee means to your routine. Are you using coffee to stay awake? If that’s the case, maybe you need to work on your sleep.


6. It’s not a sprint

Habits take time to change. “Research tells us it can take 66 to 122 days to break or make a habit,” says Dr McKee. The key with habit formation is consistency. The good news is, as time goes on, it gets easier. “Once a habit is formed, it no longer uses up your willpower, and then you don’t have to think about it,” says Dr McKee.

Do it

Set yourself a routine, say two days a week you go to the gym at 8am. Put your gym kit or trainers by your bed as a “trigger”. This takes the wrestling with your willpower out of the equation.


7. Find joy

We’re more likely to stick with a healthy habit we enjoy. “‘Want to’ goals are more likely to be achieved than ‘have to’ goals,” says Dr McKee. Why then do we order kale salad when we think it tastes like cardboard? Because we think it’s good for us – but it’s not good for us if we can’t stick with it. So ask yourself “what else could I eat that I actually like?”

Do it

Focus on how good a habit makes you feel and you’ll increase your chances of sticking with it, whether that’s the healthy glow you feel after a brisk walk, or the virtuous feeling you get from yoga.


8. Do something else

Consider the context of the habit you’re trying to break and do something else.

“So, if you always have a glass of wine while cooking dinner, can you do a big batch of cooking on a Sunday morning when you won’t want a drink, and then just warm things up for a while to break the habit?” suggests Foster.

Do it

It’s important to ask yourself what that glass of wine gives you – and whether you can find that in another way. “Maybe you hate cooking and it’s your treat for doing it. What else could help you unwind?” says Foster. “Try playing your favourite music really loud while you cook instead.”


9. Be determined

We often blame lack of willpower for an inability to make a change in life. “It’s as if it’s a commodity we either have or we don’t, but that’s not true. Everyone has willpower,” says Foster.

“Think of it as determination under another name. Realising that makes everything much easier to stick with.”

Do it

Decide where you need to direct your efforts and stay focused. We can all be determined – just be clear about what you want to achieve.

Natalia Lubomirski is a health journalist with 14 years experience in the publishing industry. She has worked for a number of well-known magazines and websites including Marie Claire,, woman&home, Top Sante, Boots and The Telegraph. 

She likes to think she practices what she preaches when it comes to health and fitness. She loves the great outdoors and you’ll often find her up a mountain somewhere. She’s climbed eight major mountain ranges across four continents and hit the summit of Half Dome (in Yosemite) during her honeymoon.