Guest blog: How to build new habits and make them stick
It can be easy to start reducing your drinking only to lose motivation later down the line. If you’re struggling, One Year No Beer’s Ruari Fairbairns has some advice on how to make those new habits stick.
Building new, healthier habits can be a process. They require time, effort and focus before they become habits. But when you repeat new behaviours1 they can become more ingrained and subconscious. Over time, those behaviours that once seemed difficult can become part of your daily life. Whether you’re looking to cut back on how much you drink, quit altogether, or want to pick yourself back up after a slip up, here’s some tips on how to build new habits that last.
Firstly, it’s important to understand what habits are and how they work.
Cue, routine, and reward
The habit loop2 is made up of three primary components: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the trigger that initiates the habitual behaviour, and this could be a wide range of things, from time of day to emotional state, to the people around you. The routine, of course, is the behaviour triggered by the cue. For instance, you may not feel hungry until you notice the clock shows 1pm (cue), which is when you’d usually eat, so you make lunch (routine). The reward is something that then reinforces the habit—for example eating comfort foods that release dopamine, a happy hormone that makes you feel good as a result of the action.
Our brains begin to programme behaviours that are repeated regularly, meaning habits are formed and learned so well that they do not require conscious thought, such as brushing our teeth or getting dressed. However, other less positive habits, such as drinking more when stressed can equally be built into subconscious habits if repeated in the same way.
A study from Duke University revealed that over 40% of our daily behaviours are determined by habits3. This suggests that there is huge potential to influence your life by eliminating bad habits and creating good ones instead. Pretty empowering, eh?
How does habit change work?
Imagine yourself standing in a forest, and in front of you there is a well-trodden pathway. You decide to go off track and walk through the undergrowth. The more times you walk this route through the undergrowth – while tricky to navigate at first – the more established that new path becomes over time. And likewise, the less the old pathway is used, the more it is slowly forgotten, as the forest and plants reclaim it.
This is how the neural pathways in your brain can be retrained, and you can replace an old behaviour with a new one. Now, imagine trying to change lots of habits at once, and that you are running in all directions through this forest. It is much harder to dedicate the time to each individual path in order to establish the new walkway. This is why it’s always a good idea to take on behaviour change goals one at a time and focus on them until they come to you naturally.
Breaking bad habits can be tricky, especially if you have been doing them for a long time. But the brain is a very clever organ. It is malleable and can adapt and evolve over time through something called ‘neuroplasticity’. We can actually rewire the brain, through repeating new behaviours, to function differently.
So, to break a habit - just stop doing that behaviour, right? Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. For example, if you find yourself wanting a drink while socialising with friends in a restaurant while you’re trying not to drink, removing yourself from the vicinity and temptation of alcohol isn’t really a long-term solution. But if you can identify a cue that triggers a specific behaviour you want to stop, then you can work out how to avoid this cue or come up with strategies to limit the impact.
For example, when you’re sitting in the restaurant with your friends and the temptation to drink washes over you (cue), you might order a soda with fresh lime, or a tonic water - whatever non-alcoholic drink helps you feel as though you’re involved, without actually drinking (routine). Then, when you wake up the next day feeling fresh and well rested, your decision not to drink is reinforced (reward).
Alternatively, you could find a way to change the reward, like treating yourself to a gift when you achieve a goal or milestone (whether that is having more drink-free days in a week, or remaining alcohol-free for a specific event).
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint
One of the reasons why attempts to change habits can often fail is because the old neural pathway never fully disappears, and once you begin to walk down that old path again, it doesn’t take too long for the road to clear and for you to fall back into old patterns.
Therefore, it’s important to continue to check in with your new habits for a while after you form them. Keep referring to the reasons why you wanted to make this improvement in your life, and don’t be hard on yourself if you notice things slipping back. Try to simply re-focus on your original goal and keep working on it until the old habit is a distant memory. There is always a way back if you slip up so try not to beat yourself up and believe in your ability.
It takes time to redirect the automatic responses in your brain – this is not a process you can rush! According to research4, on average, it can take 66 days for a behaviour to become automatic. And this can vary from person to person, with results showing it could even take up to 250 days for some. So, take it slow. Pick one area you’d like to focus on and play the long game. Before you know it, you won’t even have to think about it.
Celebrate your successes
Behaviour change is difficult, if it weren’t, we would all be living picture perfect lives. They take hard work and dedication, so reward yourself for your achievement. Whether it is small rewards daily for your effort, or one big reward at the end of your habit change journey - make sure you have something positive to look forward to, to keep you motivated.
Don't forget, little actions add up
By switching out a negative habit for one with either a neutral or positive outcome, over time, the repetition adds up to a huge difference to your lifestyle, health, and happiness. And that’s just by changing one habit. Once you’ve tackled the first, you can use your momentum to move onto the next habit you’d like to change, and then the next, you get the picture. All these incremental changes can lead to some pretty incredible results, so keep at it.
Find out more
 Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. 2012. Accessible at: Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice
 Chen, W, Chan, T.W, Wong, LH et al. 2020. Accessible at: IDC theory: habit and the habit loop
 Neal DT, Wood W, Quinn JM. Habits. 2006. Accessible at: A repeat performance. Current directions in psychological science
 Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H.M.van Jaarsveld, Henry W.W.Potts, Jane Wardle. 2009. Accessible at: How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
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