Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Tuesday 20 April |
home iconLifestyle
line break icon

The golden rule for changing bad habits



Javier Fiz Pérez - published on 02/09/18

It's called "habit reversal training" and it works because it's so simple.

When we set ourselves the goal of changing a habit of ours, there is a golden rule that many studies have shown to be one of the most powerful tools of change.

This is the rule: If we identify the cue that precedes the routine we want to change, as well as the reward we get from the routine, we can learn to find a new routine to achieve the same reward, and thus change our habit. Almost all behaviors can be transformed if the cue and the reward are consistently the same.

This golden rule has worked in treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors; understanding this mechanism can help anyone change old habits.

Asking ourselves what circumstances trigger a habit — which cues lead to our routine — is called awareness training, and it is the first step in a process called habit reversal training. It’s possible that, initially, we might be unaware of the reasons why we engage in a particular bad habit, but if we search for them, it’s likely that we will end up discovering them.

The technique goes like this: We think about in which typical situations the habit appears, and then we identify what we feel after behaving that way; for example, our habit of smoking or snacking could give us a physical sensation of stimulation or energy. Then, when the cue occurs, and we discover what reward we get from our bad habit, we need to develop a competing response to substitute for our routine (taking a short brisk walk, for example). We can keep a record of the times when the cue occurs throughout the day, and each time, engage in the competing response that substitutes for the old routine.

The techniques that psychology offers us to achieve habit reversal demonstrate one of the fundamental principles of habits: often, we haven’t understood the cravings behind our behaviors, because we haven’t taken the time to observe them.

Although it may be easy to describe the process of changing a habit, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to actually do it. We might suppose that habits of smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other deep-rooted habits can be changed without a great effort, but true change requires both understanding the cravings that lead to those behaviors and hard work. Changing any habit takes determination.

If you identify the cues and the rewards involved, you can change the routine. At least, most of the time — for some habits, however, you need another ingredient too: conviction.

In the case of alcoholics, for example, even if you offer them better habits, that change won’t cure the cause that made them begin to drink. There comes a moment when they have a bad day, and no routine can make everything seem all right. Things can only truly change if the people believe that they can face that stressful situation without alcohol.

To conclude: For habits to change permanently, we need to be convinced that change is possible.That conviction greatly increases the potential for success. Let’s remember that, in the end, our life is in our own hands; what we decide to do with it depends on us.


Read more:
Willpower won’t always cut it — what you really need to make or break a habit

Health and WellnessPsychology
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Top 10
Bret Thoman, OFS
What Padre Pio saw in the Spanish Flu of 1918
Philip Kosloski
5 Fascinating facts about Jesus in the Eucharist
Philip Kosloski
5 Essential things used at Mass and their symbolism
Philip Kosloski
Padre Pio’s favorite prayer of petition
Cerith Gardiner
7 Joys to be had from a lengthy marriage
Brett Salkeld
How to vaccinate like a Catholic
Cerith Gardiner
The lasting lesson from the late Prince Philip
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.