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August 17, 2021

How to Change Bad Habits and Get Healthy Habits to Stick

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

Part I of Successful Habit Formation

“Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” —James Baldwin

Even when we intellectually know that a relationship is toxic or a habit is taking us in the wrong direction, it can be difficult to let go. Sound familiar?

Most of us have fallen into negative habits at one time or another. And many of us have tried starting new habits. If you’re like most people, some have never really stuck. What are your current habit-change challenges? Maybe you want to stop snacking after dinnertime. Or perhaps you want to exercise more often.

Whether you want to stop doing something that no longer serves you, or get started with a new and more helpful routine, you can make lasting change. In this first part of my two-part series on cultivating the healthy, intentional living habits of your choice, you’ll be prompted to consider adopting strategies that have proven results.

Is there a change you know you should be making? When it comes to intentional living, take time to pause to ask yourself:

Who am I becoming?
Where am I going?

After all, curiosity can motivate you to keep going or it can alert you that it’s time to pivot. Take a broad look at how you’re living now, and ask yourself, Does this behavior help me become the kind of person I want to be?

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, offers a stepwise, evidence-based process for letting go of what no longer serves you and grabbing hold of a healthy habit that can lift you up.

Take an inventory

Write down any habits that you do regularly, along with those that are missing from your daily routine.

Once you have a complete list of what you do and don’t do, make a notation next to each habit, characterizing it as positive, neutral, or negative.

For example:

Start this habit: Start eating more fruits and vegetables.

Stop this habit: Stop spending so much time on social media.

Use “I” statements

Rather than jumping ahead to set goals or to visualize yourself having already made these changes, begin by noticing the story you tell yourself about who you are and who you want to be. Change is possible when we know where we are and where we want to go. Identify the kind of person you want to be.

Start this habit: I want to become a healthier eater.

Stop this habit: I want to stop spending so much time on social media, because I want to become a person who does not allow social media to interfere in other parts of my life.

Make your plan

Using a journal, write an intention for each habit change. Look at the habit from different angles. If you have trouble with this part, it can be helpful to ask yourself what, where, when, and how questions, such as, If I were a healthy eater, what is one thing I would be doing that I am not doing now? and If I didn’t let social media distract me from other important things, how would I change my patterns of using it?

Start this habit: Starting Monday, I will eat a fruit or vegetable with each meal and snack.

Stop this habit: To reduce social media use, starting Monday, I will spend only 30 minutes per day on social media, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before 9 pm, and I will turn off notifications.

Once you have a realistic intention, break down how you will build this healthy habit by looking at the four parts of habit change:

⦁ the cue
⦁ the craving
⦁ the response
⦁ the reward

Copy the following chart in your journal or other visible place. Then fill out how you can work toward building your new habit.

  Start a positive change Stop a negative habit
Cue make it obvious make it invisible
Craving make it attractive make it unattractive
Response make it easy make it hard
Reward make it satisfying make it unsatisfying
  Start a positive change: Eat more fruits and vegetables Stop a negative habit: Spend less time on social media
Cue make it obvious:
Every time I eat a meal or snack, I will be cued to include a fruit or vegetable.
make it invisible:
I will turn off all social media notifications on my phone and computer.
Craving make it attractive:
I will shop for produce on Sundays and Thursdays. I will place the fruit in a bowl where it is visible and portion out the veggies into containers in my fridge.
make it unattractive: I will make a list of the ways social media distracts me and interferes in my day, so I can easily recognize my motivation to stop.
Response make it easy: I will choose the fruit or vegetable that will satisfy me most each time I eat. make it hard: I will put my phone in a drawer, which will reduce the likelihood of me grabbing it to jump onto social media whenever I see it.
Reward make it satisfying: I will cut up the fruit because I find that enjoyable. make it unsatisfying: I will spend 15 minutes in the morning and evening engaging with the accounts of people I care about or feel inspired by. During the rest of the day, I will notice what it feels like to be more present in my work, relationships, exercise, meals, and other activities of self-care.

Now that you’ve got your well-set plan, you can take action!

Breaking a bad habit—or starting a healthy habit—is not a once-and-done activity, which is why many of us view change as impossible. I’m here to tell you that it is possible, it just takes a lot of repetition to make a habit part of your regular routine. And it helps greatly when the new change is in line with the person you want to be. When a positive change comes from a deep need—formed out of what truly matters to you—you will succeed!

Look out for my next blog post, which will feature part II of this series: another way to boost your ability to make positive habit change.


Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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