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The 3-Step Process To Quit Your Bad Habits & Replace With Better Ones

Zelana Montminy, PsyD, M.A.
February 3, 2019
Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy
February 3, 2019

I often hear clients confuse habits and goals, often using both words to mean the same thing. They are different, and the quicker we understand the difference, the closer we get to fulfilling our intentions. Habits should support our goals, but ultimately we need to think of habits as the way to reach a certain overarching goal. For example, wanting to be healthy is a goal—not a habit. But there are tons of habits we can choose to support that goal such as stocking our fridge with colorful, fresh produce prepped in glass containers. This habit of prepping choices to make healthy meals easier to achieve supports the goal of a healthier lifestyle. 

Why do semantics matter? It's important to differentiate these two meanings so the brain can celebrate smaller wins. These small wins, aka positive habits, increase confidence and happiness hormones, which help us achieve our goals with greater ease. 

This being the end of January, New Year's resolutions seem like an afterthought. The reason they often don't stick is because we list lofty goals without actually breaking down how to achieve those goals with manageable habits day to day.

In order to do this well, we must understand how habits work. Every habit has a cue and reward that cause a certain behavior to transition from being just goal-oriented to repetitive. People begin to crave the benefit of a reward when they are exposed to a certain cue or trigger. That's how a habit becomes automatic. 

It's important to take stock.

Make a list of the following:

What sort of habits do you have? Think about things you do every day. It may take more time than you think to do this since habits can be so ingrained in our routine that you may not easily recall even doing them.

What do you do right when you wake up? After that? Do you eat the same thing for breakfast every day? That's a habit, too! Take inventory of your habits, and list them according to the time of day.

Once you feel the list is complete, color-code it. With a blue pen circle the good habits that you want to keep. With a red pen, circle the ones you want to change. Make a separate list of the ones you want to change, with each habit on its own line. Beside that habit, write down a habit you want to replace it with.

Now that you have identified those habits you want to keep and what to banish from your routine, let's figure out how to keep them from sneaking back into your life.

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy


Don't just vow to introduce a new healthy cue into your morning routine based on your current goals—also actually make it physically easier on yourself to do. If you want to start the day with a glass of warm lemon water to improve digestion and circulation, leave a lemon and cup on your kitchen counter the night before. Do you want to start your day with 10 minutes of exercise? Leave out your yoga mat with a preset timer as a cue. If you want to start drinking tea instead of coffee, put away the coffee machine and put a tea bag in a cup by the teapot! These are pretty straightforward—but simplicity is key here. The more complicated you make things, the harder it will be to stick with.


Change your environment. Think about the last time you were on vacation. I guarantee you didn't do all the same things you do at home. Perhaps you woke up and took a walk outside, instead of jumping on social media and surfing Instagram. If you'd been overeating because of anxiety or boredom at home, you didn't do that on vacation because you were with a group of people or had others at the hotel to talk with. You stopped smoking because you were too busy snorkeling. With varying surroundings, cues are different, rewards are different, and you feel different, right? Unfortunately, you can't just hop on a plane at any time, but you can take a short break from your usual routine—even just taking a walk outside will reframe your mind and help redirect habits you're looking to shift. Notice what cues change and how you want to build on that when you get back home. For example, if you didn't feel the urge to smoke while on a hike, notice what about the hike fulfilled you and made you not want to smoke. What are the cues at home or at work that make you want to smoke?


Quit one bad habit by taking away a cue and its reward—and have a replacement ready. For example, if you have a habit of watching TV until you fall asleep but it's impairing your sleep quality, put the remote in the bathroom before you get into bed (take away the cue). Put a good book by your bed instead (replacement). You're less likely to watch TV if it requires extra effort to get the remote and you have a good book to read next to you instead. Leave all electronics out of reach. You'll sleep better and wake up more refreshed (reward).

List five bad habits you want to change. Which cue will you take away, and what will you replace it with?

Often the cue that you think is triggering the habit isn't as simple as you imagine it to be. A good way to filter through all the complexity is to write down details about a particular habit you're trying to change. What are you feeling at that moment? Where are you? Who's around you? What time is it? What else do you notice? Take notes every day in a separate notebook, and you'll start to see patterns. These clues will lead you to expose the cues that are spurring the habitual behavior. Once you've established this, you can plan to replace the cue with something else that will lead to a positive reward.

Let's make these exercises a habit!

Zelana Montminy, PsyD, M.A. author page.
Zelana Montminy, PsyD, M.A.

Zelana Montminy, PsyD, M.A., is a positive psychologist and health and wellness contributor to a variety of broadcast, digital and print media. Zelana holds Masters and Doctorate degrees in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Health and a focus in Positive Psychology, and has a Certification in Nutrition. She frequently speaks at conferences and various academic, business, and non-profit institutions, and is a member of the American Psychological Association and is a consultant for the Institute for Applied Positive Research.

She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young children. She is the author of 21 DAYS TO RESILIENCE: How to Transcend the Daily Grind, Deal with the Tough Stuff, and Discover Your Strongest SelfRESILIENCE: How to Transcend the Daily Grind, Deal with the Tough Stuff, and Discover Your Strongest Self (HarperElixir; April 5, 2016).