Establishing a New Habit


Something that is fundamentally misunderstood about habits is that once they are formed you will always have them. There is always a cue or trigger, and this is followed by an automatic routine that you follow. The habitual routine is then normally reinforced by some type of reward. This cannot be changed because it is logged in the brain. You can however overwrite this with a new routine and possible reward. The key to this is firstly recognising what the cue or trigger is. This may be one thing it could be several. If you take eating sweets for instance, the cue/triggers could be hunger (low blood sugar), boredom, reward. If you have identified these, you now have a couple of options.

  1. Remove the cue/triggers – eat regularly thus avoiding low blood sugar. Set regular tasks to avoid boredom, pick a new reward.
  2. Change the routine – come up with something new the client will do when you recognise the trigger and most importantly reward themselves with something that has a saliency for them.

Both 1 and 2 above will have to be consciously practiced the new routine consciously for as long as 254 days (1) as research suggests this is how long a habit can take to form. When undertaking this with clients it is important that you make it clear to them that all you are doing is overwriting their old habit. If they are not aware of this, it will be very easy for them to move back to the original habit.

The conscious awareness will have to be continually practiced and reinforced. Especially in the early stages of making a change it will be very easy to slip back almost accidently to using the old habit. After all this is why they were put in place in the first place. To some degree this is where accountability helps as if someone else is always checking in with you to see how you are progressing you are more likely to be aware of not back sliding on the change.

What should be apparent from the above is how well you need to understand your client and how you need really good communication skills to master this.

  1. Journal of Social Psychology. (2010) 40, 998–1009