Breaking unhealthy habits | 4 tips from a behaviour expert

Struggling to break bad habits and get healthy? Research Fellow and behaviour expert, Dr Sophie Attwood has four tips to boost your chances of success.

Habits are settled practices and tendencies that by their very nature are difficult to give up. Willpower, like a muscle, fatigues relatively easily when you’re out of training. It’s important to be aware that in most cases, willpower alone is unlikely to help you break bad habits and form healthier ones. Here are four tricks to boost your chances.

1. One step at a time

If you routinely eat unhealthily or avoid physical activity, there are many things you can do to improve your lifestyle. Setting out to achieve radical change is admirable, but unlikely to be successful. Instead, choose one change and try to stick with just that for a while. Promise yourself you won’t buy that packet of sweets on the way home every day or commit yourself to short daily walk.

Try a single goal and see how you go about achieving it. If it’s working, add another goal. The more specific you can be in making a plan to achieve your goal – stating when, where, and how you will do it – the more chance you have of succeeding.

2. Shape your environment

Don’t let your environment set you up to fail. Remove temptation and try to identify and surmount barriers to eating healthily, being active or getting a good night's sleep.

Don’t keep treats at home where you can access them anytime you have a craving. Make sure you have the right clothing and kit for exercise and keep it washed and ready in a place you won’t forget. Create prompts to break long periods of sitting – make TV adverts your time to move or routinely get off the bus or train a stop early. If you drive to work, try to find parking a 10-minute walk away from the office.

Pre-empt tempting situations by making plans. Leave your phone in another room when you go to bed so you won't be tempted to look at it when you should be winding down. Write up a shopping list and plan your route around the supermarket to avoid aisles where the products appeal to your weaknesses. Don’t wait until you’re hungry to buy food – pack something healthy. Use reminders on your phone, work computer or a fitness tracker to prompt you to get out of your seat and move around.

3. Commit yourself publicly

Tell your friends and family about your goals and ask them to help you, remind you and push you in the right direction. You can even write out a contract and ask a family member to witness it while you sign your name. Put it somewhere obvious in your home or carry it with you as a constant reminder.

4. Reward yourself (with healthy choices)

Sticking to a plan is worth celebrating, even if you’re not always achieving important milestones. Choose rewards that you’ll look forward to and appreciate that don’t involve unhealthy meals, drinking sessions or prolonged inactivity. Make your reward healthy by treating yourself to a new pair of trainers or booking a walking holiday instead.

Last updated Monday 24 August 2020

First published on Thursday 23 February 2017