Mental Health

5 Ways To Build or Break Habits

Building new habits and shedding old ones isn't just about willpower; it's a subtle leap between understanding triggers, behaviours, and the rewards they yield. Explore effective strategies to break and build habits.

By URLife Team
18 Dec 2023

Habits often get a bad reputation. They're commonly linked with the things we want to change about ourselves. Yet, what's labelled a "bad habit" by one person might not seem negative to another. Regardless of their nature, habits influence every facet of life, be it personal or professional—they're universal.


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However, habits might not be as villainous as they're made out to be. According to a 2006 study by Current Directions in Psychology Science, habits govern most of your daily decisions—roughly 43 per cent of your actions fall into habitual patterns. Without these routines, orchestrating every move, from that morning cup of coffee to mundane tasks, would be nearly impossible.


Related story: These 8 Habits Will Help You Survive Your Best Life


Defining Habits

According to a 2023 study by the American Psychological Association, habits are essentially patterns of behaviour that unfold regularly and often without conscious effort. They typically operate on a subconscious level, ingrained through repetition and regularity. These routines often stem from repeated exposure or physiological processes, gradually becoming automatic.


For instance, when feeling hunger (trigger), we eat food (behaviour), and the reward is feeling satisfied or satiated. Our brain naturally gravitates toward behaviours that generate positive feelings or outcomes and tends to avoid those associated with stress or discomfort. This same pattern of trigger-behaviour-reward applies to various habits, such as smoking a cigarette or indulging in a cupcake.


Related story: Seven Archetypes of Personality: Break Free From Your Patterns


Power of Habits

A 2019 reward-based learning report in the Harvard Business Review shows that habits operate on a simple cycle: a trigger prompts a certain pattern, which is followed by a reward. This cycle influences our desire to repeat actions that provide a positive or rewarding outcome while avoiding those that bring discomfort or stress.


Due to their subconscious nature, habits largely evade our conscious awareness, unlike our thoughts, emotions, or beliefs. They're formed when we repeatedly engage in a certain behaviour in response to a particular situation, especially when it yields a desired or favourable outcome.


Have good influence over health and lifestyle

Habits wield a profound influence on our overall health and lifestyle choices. They serve as the cornerstone for maintaining healthy routines, from exercise and diet to sleep patterns and stress management. Positive habits contribute to a healthier and more balanced life.


Paves the way for success in career and life

By automating routine tasks, habits free up mental space for more critical decisions and complex problem-solving. It not only boosts productivity but also enhances efficiency in tackling challenging tasks.


Habitual behaviours reduce decision fatigue

Automating mundane tasks through habits allows the brain to conserve energy for creative endeavours, fostering innovation and enabling individuals to allocate mental resources to more critical choices. Building habits helps in breaking down ambitious goals into manageable, actionable steps. 


Serve as a bridge between aspirations and achievements

They offer a structured approach to reaching ambitious goals, breaking down daunting tasks into manageable, bite-sized actions. This incremental progress keeps motivation high and helps individuals stay focused on long-term objectives.


Related story: The Art of Stacking Up Healthy Habits


How to Develop Healthy Habits

Habits serve as a powerful tool for achieving goals. Habits streamline actions by making them automatic. Once a habit is established, less conscious effort and decision-making are needed, leading to increased efficiency and consistency in performing tasks.


Building habits quickly requires consistency and strategic approaches. 


Here are five effective habit-building tips:

Start with a small and specific drill

Break down the habit into manageable steps. Begin with tiny actions that are easy to accomplish. For example, if the goal is to exercise regularly, start with a short workout routine or a daily walk. As these small habits become routine, gradually increase their complexity or duration.


Link new patterns to existing routines

Associate the new habit with an existing behaviour or routine. This creates an automatic trigger. For instance, if the goal is to drink more water, link it to an existing routine like having a glass of water after brushing your teeth in the morning.


Work on new habits until they become automatic

Commit to performing the new habit consistently. Repetition forms habits. Aim to practise the habit at the same time or in the same context daily. Consistency reinforces the behaviour and helps it become automatic.


Write down each progress to see how far you’ve come

Hold yourself accountable by tracking your progress. Use habit-tracking apps or journals to monitor your daily activities. Sharing your goals with a friend or joining a supportive group can also provide accountability and motivation.


Reward yourself for sticking to the habit

Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements along the way. Breaking down the habit-building process into smaller milestones helps maintain motivation. Reward yourself for sticking to the habit for a certain period, reinforcing the positive behaviour.


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5 Ways To Break Habits

Secrets to breaking bad habits incorporating elements of self-reflection, behaviour modification, and seeking external support when necessary. They provide a well-rounded toolkit for individuals aiming to overcome ingrained habits and foster positive change.


1. Identify and work to eliminate triggers

Recognise patterns leading to the habit, such as specific times of day or emotional states. Start by listing the habits you wish to eliminate. Be specific and clear about what behaviours you want to change. For instance, if it's about reducing screen time or minimising unhealthy snacking, jot down those habits.


2. Replace old habits with a new one

Replace the undesired behaviour with a healthier or more constructive alternative. For instance, if snacking impulsively is a habit, replace it with healthier snack options or swap wine with a cup of herbal tea or a different activity like taking a short walk.


3. Go slow to reduce previous habits

Gradually decrease the frequency or intensity of the habit over time. This method involves slowly reducing the habit rather than quitting cold turkey, making the change more manageable. Once the tiny habit becomes a consistent part of your routine, gradually increase its complexity or duration. For instance, increase the five-minute walk to ten minutes, then to a full workout session.


4. Practise mindfulness to avoid triggers

Practise mindfulness to become more aware of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours associated with the habit. The environment we surround ourselves with can significantly influence our habits. By identifying specific triggers—be it certain places, people, or activities—that prompt unwanted behaviour, individuals can take proactive steps to modify their surroundings.


In the case of overspending triggered by a particular store, change the environment by opting for a different shopping location. This shift removes the immediate temptation, making it easier to avoid habitual behaviour.


5. Create visual reminders as gentle nudges to stay focused

Creating a visual representation of your goals can be incredibly powerful in reinforcing breaking negative ones. Use post-it notes or any visual aids to represent your goals. Write down affirmations or short reminders about the habits you want to break. Place these notes in locations where they'll serve as frequent reminders. Common places include bathroom mirrors, the refrigerator door, your workspace, or any other spot where you'll regularly encounter them throughout the day.


Related story: 9 Proven Strategies To Break Bad Habits



Understanding that habits are not formed or changed overnight is key. It's about making incremental adjustments, celebrating small victories, and being kind to ourselves throughout the journey. Cultivating self-compassion and adopting a growth mindset allows for flexibility and adaptability, enabling us to navigate the challenges of habit-making or breaking more effectively.

Need all your wellness solutions in one place? A whole new world awaits just a click away.



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