4 Steps to Modifying Bad Habits

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)

Welcome back to the third, and final part, of this series on habits!

If you need to catch up you can read the first part, where we talked about what habits are all about, here.

And the second part, where we talked about the power of keystone habits, and how small changes can lead to big results can be found here.

Now, in this article I want to explore a technique that can be used to modify bad habits.

As we learned earlier in the series there are three parts to the habit loop: a cue, the routine, and the perceived reward.

Well, as it turns out, in order to modify a bad habit we must follow this framework:

  1. Identify the cue
  2. Test different rewards
  3. Insert new routine
  4. Make a plan

Let’s dig into these steps using the example we started the series with… that bad habit of eating junk food right before bed.

Of course, the newly baptized clean eater in me wants to be clear… eating sugary junk food is NEVER a good idea. But, goodness, there most definitely couldn’t be a worse time to eat junk than right before bed as you lay on the couch watching the game!

Step 1: Identify the Cue

OK, the first step to modifying a habit is to identify the cue. So, when you feel the urge to act on the bad habit take out a piece of paper (literally carry a small notepad and pen with you) and note the following:

  • Where are you? Home? Work? Somewhere else?
  • What time is it? Note it… to the minute.
  • What did you just do?
  • How are you feeling? Bored? Tired? Angry?
  • Who are you with? Alone? Friends? Family?

Chances are very good that answering these questions each and every time you feel the urge to initiate this bad habit should allow you to isolate the primary cue.

Now, in our example, which, OK, I admit it, I’ve battled this junk food in the evening issue from time to time (don’t you dare judge me!) here’s what I’ve discovered.

In most cases the repeatable cues were the time of day (usually around 10:00 PM) and the location (my couch). So, for me, the primary cues to this habit were the interaction of time and location.

What’s interesting is if I ever travel for business I almost never have this late night junk food urge. And, if I’m watching a football game in the afternoon on this same couch I don’t have the urge either. But, put these two “cues” together, and booyah, we could have problems!

Step 2: Test Different Rewards

Once you’ve identified the cue, or have a good idea of what it may be, it’s time to test different rewards.

In other words, we need to figure out what cravings we believe this habit is satisfying.

So, to test this, we need to make like scientists and run some experiments. To do this you simply substitute your normal reward (i.e. junk food) with something else like a cup of hot herbal tea, an apple, or water.

You can also experiment with totally different rewards. In other words, instead of eating or drinking something the junk food experimenter may choose to talk to someone or do some light exercises.

But, with enough experimentation, you will likely find a reward that satisfies the craving.

In my late night junk food situation I discovered – after some experimentation – that drinking a glass of ice-cold water or a cup of hot herbal (non caffeinated) tea while reading a book in my bedroom took my mind off of the junk food.

Not only is the water or tea better for me physically… reading a book is far better for my mind than watching mindless TV. And getting into bed helps ensure I get a good nights sleep instead of binge watching ESPN until early morning!

Step 3: Insert New Routine

Once you’ve identified the cue, or have a good idea of what it may be, it’s time to insert the new routine and give it a go!

Basically, you’re continuing the testing from step 2 over a longer period of time.  Now, the key to success here is to start immediately.  Don’t delay and say things like, “Oh, I’ll start this new routine next week, etc.”  Start now.

Step 4: Make a Written Plan

Finally, the last step to solidifying the habit modification process is to write out a detailed plan of attack.

So, in my case, here was (and still is) my plan for when I feel the urge to eat junk food late at night.

I’ve italicized the text you’d replace with your personal cue, routine, and reward once you have your own plan of attack.

When it’s around 10:00 PM and I’m at home, I will drink an ice-cold glass of water or cup of hot herbal tea while reading a book in my bed because it provides me with the feeling of fullness, both physically and intellectually.

Once you have your plan written out post it where you’ll be able to see it. You may also want to share your plan with your significant other or a friend or colleague.

Basically, when we let others know what we hope to accomplish they will, hopefully, be supportive of our efforts.

Spiritual Battle

Finally, I’d like to conclude this series of articles with a few words about overcoming sinful habits since; obviously, in the end they are far deadlier to our souls than eating junk food before bed.

So, if you find yourself falling to the same sins again and again – especially sins of the flesh – I beg you to see if you can identify the cue, routine, and perceived reward of the sinful behavior.

Then, once you feel as though you better understand what you’re up against you can begin to experiment with different routines once you feel these sinful urges.

In the end, habits are habits. And the process for modifying them is surprisingly similar.

Of course, if you feel as though you’re truly addicted to something such as alcohol or pornography or gambling by all means seek out professional and spiritual help. There are many support groups and professionals available. But, the first step to recovery is admitting you need help.

What about you?

I’m especially curious to hear your thoughts on what we’ve covered throughout this series of articles. Have you successfully modified bad habits in the past? If so, how did you approach it? And, knowing what you know now, would you have approached it differently?

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