Over time, repeating the desired behavior can turn into a true habit.

A habit, by definition, is something you do regularly and without much thought. Habits are so ingrained in your brain that you don’t have to devote any serious energy to making them happen.

There are good habits, such as regular exercise, and bad habits, like smoking. Some habits form quickly and almost accidentally. Bad habits, like smoking, nail biting, overeating or wasting time on social media, are often formed as a way to deal with stress or boredom. Other, more positive habits can be a real struggle to get going. But once a habit, good or bad, is solidified, it is usually hard to break. 

Getting started with a new, healthier habit is never easy. In the beginning, you are working on changing a particular behavior. Over time, repeating the desired behavior can turn into a true habit. There are some solid scientific theories on habit formation and some specific steps you can take to get that desired behavior to become an effortless habit.

When thoughts and actions happen repeatedly at the same time, this creates a situation where a cue prompts a default action. As you continue to repeat the behavior, the link between the cue and the action gets stronger. Let’s say you want to start exercising first thing every morning. If you wake up and debate whether to get up and exercise, you probably won’t get into a habit. If instead you have your workout clothes ready where you’ll see them as soon as your eyes open, they will become a cue to your brain that is associated with your desire to exercise. As you put these two things together more and more, the connection gets stronger and stronger. 

Your best chance for developing a habit is to find something rewarding about doing it. Rewards need a sharp focus, rather than a vague, long-term goal. Instead of starting to exercise because you want to be healthier, think about a specific reason, such as wanting to be able to ride bikes with the grandkids. Think of ways to reward yourself for consistently repeating your desired behavior until it becomes a habit. An example would be to buy new workout clothes if you succeed in going to the gym three days a week for a month. 

You may have heard it takes a certain number of days or weeks of repeating a behavior to make it a habit. But it really isn’t that simple. Lots of things play into habit formation, such as whether your cue is strong enough, how pleasurable the desired habit is and what else is going on in your life. For most habits, you will need to be very patient. The more consistent you with repeating the behavior, the more likely it will turn into a habit.

Maybe you need to break a bad habit instead of starting a new, healthy habit. Breaking old habits is doable, but it isn’t easy. The longer you’ve had a particular habit, the harder it is to break. It isn’t just a matter of willpower, as some believe. Start by recognizing what habit needs to change. You can’t change something if you don’t accept the need to change. Study the cues associated with the habit you want to break. Does the cup of coffee in your hand make you want to light a cigarette? Is evening television watching your cue to grabbing that bag of chips? If you can alter your routine, eliminate those cues, and repeat over and over, the bad habit will eventually be wiped out. 

Choose a substitute for your bad behavior. What else can you do when you get the urge to smoke? Chew gum, do breathing exercises and take a walk are all good options. Breaking a bad habit is more about substituting new, better habits.

Don’t let slip-ups keep you from your ultimate goal of breaking a bad habit. Take it one day at a time, and quickly get back on track. Don’t beat yourself up with negative thoughts. Visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away cigarettes or stocking the kitchen with healthy food, or imagine your hand with beautifully manicured nails.

Breaking bad habits and developing new ones takes time and effort, but it mostly takes perseverance. Eventually, your new healthy habits will be so ingrained in your brain that you won’t even have to think about them.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach.