Habit Change for Newbies

“I know what I’m supposed to do, I just can’t do it.”

You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re probably a smart person (and good looking, funny, and modest). You know what you’re supposed to do to get healthy:

And yet, we still find ourselves struggling to make any changes stick.  If you are really overweight and struggling, you might even feel like every decision made is a foregone conclusion and there’s no hope.

After running Nerd Fitness for over three and a half years, I can definitively say that you are 100% in control of every decision you can make.  You just need to train yourself to identify the habits you’re hoping to form.

That’s what we’re going to do today.  Change is a good thing.  

The Power of Habit

Stone archway looks on to forest

I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, one of the most powerful and thought provoking books I’ve ever read on habit change.

Here’s the story: you are made up of a collection of your habits.  In fact, “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”

If you aren’t thrilled with how you look in the mirror, examine the collection of habits that have resulted in your appearance – hundreds upon hundreds of actions have drilled these behaviors into your body and mind.  Every time you complete an action, a little bit less willpower and brainpower is required to make the same decision.

Eventually, these actions become automatic, and no brainpower is necessary.

It’s why you see the same type of people in line for Cinnabon.  To paraphrase Louis CK – WARNING: offensive language and hilarious self-deprecation – they’re not happy, but they feel like they don’t have any control to stay away.  They’ve trained their brains (without realizing it) to smell Cinnabon, and imagine themselves eating it, thinking of nothing else other than Cinnabon.  Their stores are purposefully positioned away from the rest of the food courts in malls so the smell of their products (and ONLY their products) take over people’s senses long before they actually see the store.

It’s why many people feel like they are addicted to food: “There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat…But once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high.  Our brains will push us toward the box.  Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

It’s why people eat when they’re unhappy, bored, or depressed:  Your brain and body have been trained over years of routine that food = happiness and activity.  Kind of depressing, yes, but just as you can train your brain and body to do one thing, you can then teach and train it to do the exact opposite!

The parts of a habit

Final piece of jigsaw puzzle, Parts of Habit

A habit is built with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. It’s why you crave certain foods, it’s why you can’t help but check your email every time your phone vibrates, and why you can’t keep yourself from checking Twitter incessantly (until you learn to make productivity a habit).

You have trained your brain to take a cue (phone vibrates, you see a candy bar or doughnut), anticipate a reward (a sugar high, the satisfaction of no unread messages). When this happens repeatedly, they become habits.

The first step to making positive habit change is to understand how and why your habits are the way they are.  




Once you understand that this is how a habit is formed, you can start identifying new habits that you’d like to establish in place of your old ones.

For example, let’s assume you’d like to start making better food decisions and eating a healthy breakfast:

  • Cue – 7:30 alarm goes off – eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Routine – Repeatedly eat breakfast at 7:30AM over many weeks.
  • Reward – A new bathing suit when weight is lost.  A new pair of pants for a month of healthy habits.  A sense of satisfaction when stepping on the scale and seeing a lower number.
Over time, your body and brain will actually start to get hungry around 7:30AM, expecting and working towards that reward that you’ve laid out for yourself.  Eventually, it will become automatic and NOT eating breakfast at 7:30AM will require a strange amount of willpower.

Maybe you want to stop drinking soda, but feel like you need it every afternoon to get through work. Right now your cue is “I’m tired” and your reward is “sugar and caffeine high.”

Instead make the mental adjustment:

  • Cue – I’m tired, thirsty, and have no energy.
  • Routine – Go for 15 minute walk outside, do push ups, or drink black coffee/tea.
  • Reward – More energy, happier, healthier.

When you find yourself thirsty and tired, reach for a tall glass of water, a black coffee, or green tea. Go for a 10 minute walk outside and see how you feel when you come back. Write down your thoughts and results, test your changes to see how your body reacts.

It’s a habit that can be adjusted and learned once you’ve cracked the code.

How to change a habit

Changing Rubick's Cube

Pick ONE habit you want to change:

  • Identify the cue that spurs it on – Is it the time of day? Boredom? Hunger? After work? Stress?
  • Identify the potential rewards – Happiness? Energy? Satisfaction?
  • Identify a new routine you’d like to establish that results in the same ‘reward’ from the negative behavior…but in a more productive and healthy way.

Here’s an example:

HABIT YOU’D LIKE TO CHANGE: Eating in between meals all day long, which leads to overeating and weight gain.

IDENTIFY THE CUE AND REWARD: Make a note in a notebook every time you’re hungry, and identify a cue and reward. Test out different routines that lead you to a healthier (yet still desired) reward:

  • If you’re bored or lack energy, maybe it’s push ups.
  • If you’re burned out from work, maybe it’s 5 minutes spent looking at goats on YouTube.
  • If it’s lack of socialization, maybe it’s walking over to your friend’s desk WITHOUT eating.

BUILD THE NEW ROUTINE:  Try out different things, and then write down your results.  Which ones still gave you the happy feeling of eating without eating unhealthy foods.  Once you’ve identified the cue that’s causing your bad habit, add a new routine that still gives you the desired results. Do everything you can do to give yourself a chance at success with that new routine – become a robot and use technology to help you until that new habit becomes automatic.

It can be done

Statue in victory pose on horizon

The most important thing I took from the book:

“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real.  This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be.  Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing…that bears us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

If you are struggling to lose weight or have lost weight and aren’t seeing the rewards and benefits yet, remember that you have years of habits to reverse…but they can be reversed.

You are not a victim or a slave to your choices of the past; you are NOT trapped in the matrix and your decisions are NOT made for you. Like Neo, you can break free of these bonds.

Pick ONE habit at a time if you are serious about making it stick.  Don’t change too much at once or you’ll fail at all of them.  Not because you’re weak or lack self-control, but because we have a limited amount of willpower.

I would love to hear from you today: What one habit are you going to change?

The cue that causes the bad habit, the reward you get from it, and at least one potential routine change that you’re going to test to see if you can start building that new habit.


PS –   Here’s the book again: The Power of Habit.  It’s required reading for any Nerd Fitness Rebel struggling with habit change.

PPS – Do we have other bookworms around here? Would you be interested in more suggestions on interesting and helpful books that I’ve come across?


photosource: mouse on wheel, archway, jigsaw, victory, rubik’s cube


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  • http://about.me/ryanjriehl Ryan J Riehl

    I just read the book, and I agree, it’s really great! I’ve already started using the techniques myself. Although, I’m not very proficient at it yet.

    I’d love to hear more about what books you’re reading. Are there book discussions in the forums? I haven’t checked in awhile.

    Also, have you heard of the new iPhone app “Lift”? It’s a habit building app, recommended by Tim Ferriss. I’ve been using it for the last few days. You can track your progress in sticking to new habits and interact with others.

  • Carolyn

    Thanks Steve, another great post!!! I’ve had “The Power of Habit” sitting on my kindle for weeks just waiting to be read, and now I think it’s time to start. That will be my 30 minutes of reading before bedtime choice tonight….thanks again!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1452339131 Jazz English

    Love book suggestions.
    I need to change my smoking habit. Not quit, cause really, I’d rather be a smoker. But I NEED to cut back. To day, I’ll work on dialing it back.

  • Shelly

    WHO THE HECK GETS UP AT 730AM??? Geez, I leave my house 7am in order to be at work on time (45 mile drive).

    Aside from that, great post! 😀 Never thought of creating healthy habits in the Cue/Repeat/Reward context, but it makes sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.rice.3726613 Andrew Rice

    I’ll have to pick that one up, sounds like an interesting read.

    The habit I’m currently working on is cooking and bringing a healthy lunch to work every day. This will help me save money and eat better. I’m getting better at it, learning to not even think about it (aka build the habit) while cooking dinner is the most important part.

    Thanks for another great post

  • http://www.facebook.com/ricjoe1 Richard Nelson

    Diet pop, I really need to cust this habit, in fact it is 12:14pm and I have been nursing this bottle since 11:30am ><. I have made lots of changes over the last 2 years. I eat healthy avoid junk 99% of the time (I still like a bowl of chips once in a while). Quitting smoking was a breeze compared to this diet pop addiction. I will add your book to my list, just ordered
    Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen the other day, should be in today or tomorrow!!

  • Bruce

    Yes, I’m absolutely interested in hearing about other books you’ve read.

    I’ve recently had some good success installing new habits. A good deal of the credit goes to BJ Fogg, a Stanford professor who runs a great service called Tiny Habits.

    Let’s talk specifics:
    -no soda/pop at all since July 31
    -no more eating breakfast out (old standard was a bagel and a diet coke)
    -new morning habit: do incline push ups after waking up in the morning (started off just doing 3, now doing 10)
    -new morning habit: fill up water bottle immediately on arriving at the office. (I also fill it up after lunch). This means I now drink a minimum of 1 liter of water each work day

  • Sinuosette

    I managed to get rid of some of my worse habits, health-wise: I am not
    drinking sodas (any!) and reduced the amount of sweets from “OMG I love
    stuffing my face with chocolate!” to having sweets once every blue moon and in super tiny portions.
    The one habit I can’t seem to change right now is my sleepign pattern. I
    don’t see myself as a morning person, work starts at 11am, so I sleep
    till 9.30am. I workout in the evening, without issues. I guess I can’t
    change it because I don’t see a reason for changing it, but that is
    definitely going to be a tough one, should a change be required. I love
    my sleep!

  • mari

    This is a really great post! I had the opportunity to take a class on motivation and behavior change last year and it’s really interesting to see the parallels between what I learned then and what I’m reading now.

    I’d definitely be interested in reading some suggestions! I’d also like to recommend ‘Why We Do What We Do’ by Deci and ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely. Cheers!

  • Courtnie Marie

    Great post, and very true. I have trained myself in the past few months to eat dinner later than 5:30-6pm (right after I get home). Now, I first do some sort of activity whether it’s just plain working out or going down to the trails for a walk with my dog. I can’t imagine what I did with myself for 5 hours after work without breaking it up with an activity!
    I think the next step is definitely breakfast. I have been cutting down my cereal portions from 3-4 cups of cereal to 2 cups (plus 1 cup skim milk). However, cereal isn’t exactly a healthy breakfast – I lower the portion and add fruit when I have it in the house. I’d like to get used to actually making oatmeal or eggs every once and a while. These would especially be good as a portable breakfast if I’m running late (instead of the bagel at the local shop).

  • Dearing

    My issue is I have huge goals, but I constantly sabotage myself with the stresses of being a soon to be first time dad, high school teacher, and social person. Working out is not an issue… Boot Camp, Gym Time, and running are a regular stress release. It’s the prepping healthy food and sticking to it that beats me down. Exhaustion sets in and the CRAP they serve at some local restaurant becomes the go-to…. I am down 40 pounds since the first day of last year but I have been stuck at 40 pounds for about 2 or 3 months… Time to change something…

  • JoRocka

    21 days to form a habit! only takes one day to break them.

    I love the fact you included small changes (I’m a huge fan of the small month long challenge) and I tell people I train- the weight did not come on over night- it is not going to leave over night- you must take SMALL manageable steps on your journey in order to succeed- but you can do it!

    Excellent write up thanks so much- I can’t wait to pick the book up and read it!

  • http://www.12minuteathlete.com/ Krista Stryker

    I get up at 7:30 Shelly… one of the perks of working from home!

  • http://www.12minuteathlete.com/ Krista Stryker

    It took me a couple of years after college to establish a solid exercise habit. I used to think I wasn’t that into working out, and my only real exercise consisted of running 3 miles every few days or so, which I hated.

    Then, I discovered high intensity interval training (HIIT) and I learned to love fitness. Now the habit is so instilled in me I find it difficult to take one rest day off a week of training.

    Find something you love to do, be consistant with it, and you’ll build a habit!

  • http://fearlessmen.com/author/jmummery/ John

    I just recently used this method to stop drinking coffee and swtiched to tea. I identified when I first thought of coffee and started thinking about tea instead and then over a few days it’s been easier.

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  • Kelekona

    Have you read the recent Daily Apple on how we procrastinate because of instant gratification? There is a little bit of the same theme, habits naturally align along the most immediate reward.

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  • Fyreflies

    You can always go to those crap-serving restaurants and order a salad with no dressing and no croutons? I can understand the lack of energy to prepare anything once you’ve been doing a ton of things throughout the day. Also.. for getting stuck. I was stuck at a plateau after losing 40 lbs for MONTHS. Then I went Paleo .. everything is moving along at a good pace now. Lost another 25 lbs in 2 months of Paleo.

  • Guest

    Ironically, I’ve written a similar post (published tomorrow) because of the same book 🙂 It really is all about habits.
    To answer your PPS…I’m currently reading “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal PhD. She basically talks about what willpower is, why it’s limited and how it works. My favourite chapter so far is chapter 5 – The Brain’s Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness. It essentially comes down to Dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for our desire…which is good and bad. Good, because without desire we become apathatic. But bad, because we often desire things that aren’t necessarily good for us.

  • http://twitter.com/healthsmartsexy Ali Piazza

    Ironically, I’ve written a similar post (published tomorrow) because of the same book 🙂 It really is all about habits.
    To answer your PPS…I’m currently reading “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal PhD. She basically talks about what willpower is, why it’s limited and how it works. My favourite chapter so far is chapter 5 – The Brain’s Big Lie: Why We Mistake Wanting for Happiness. It essentially comes down to Dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for our desire…which is good and bad. Good, because without desire we become apathatic. But bad, because we often desire things that aren’t necessarily good for us.

  • Ali Lomneck

    Love the book suggestion! You might add “Your Brain At Work” to your list. Good read and a lot this community might find useful. 8)

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  • seriously.

    Make a post on required readings, now that you’ve gone and teased me!

  • Charlayna

    I always try to take it slow whenever I want to change something. I like focusing on small things, accomplishing them, then moving on to other things I want to work on. For instance, I started going to a weight training class last week (5 days/week), and I’m going to continue to keep going everyday for a few more weeks before I try to work on being strict with primal eating again (aka I’m eating too many carbs, not enough protein, right amount of fat). Even just making one healthy decision per day helps (I’m hoping the weather isn’t terrible tomorrow so I can ride my bike to work)!

    That’s how I gave up soda and energy drinks almost 7 years ago!

  • Charlayna

    Also for books: “The Unnatural History of the Sea” by Dr. Callum Roberts will change the way you look at seafood, and likely will change what seafood you will eat for the rest of your life. “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold is a great, short read that gets me excited about wildlife, probably because so much of the book reminds me of my childhood growing up on a very similar property in MO.

    Not exactly motivational books or anything, but it’s nice to be well informed for the other healthy choices (food, being outside, etc.) we choose to do each day.

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  • physiquerescue

    Just started reading this book the other day! So many great things we can take from it. Awesome post!


  • http://www.facebook.com/bjorn.shearer96 Bjorn Shearer

    This is one of the best ways I have heard about to improve your overal fittness and health. Habits caused this body so break those dam things to improve it 🙂
    My question is though how do you break that disgusting habit of biting your fingernails?????????????

  • Ilhan

    Hi Steve,

    nice article.
    What helped me most with changing habits is taking it one at a time. I think this one is very important, and you have talked about this several times. You have to take one step at a time, you can’t just try to turn your life upside down most of the time (it works for some people, but I am pretty positive the majority can’t just do it).
    It’s also important to automate it as much as possible. For example, make sure you don’t buy that sugary stuff if you wanna get your diet in check. Go to a grocery store where they don’t have that crap. If there is a ice cream joint on your way to work and you HAVE to get ice cream every day, use another route.

  • Sinuosette

    Aaaand: I bought the book. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

  • http://www.facebook.com/boulder.basti Boulder Basti

    I like the classic “The 7 Habits of higly effective people” by Corvey. I think this is one of the best life improvin books ever. (Maybe not everything should be taken too seriously – to much do-gooder)

    Anyways I had a “The Boon Dock Saints” moment 25 days ago and directly quit smoking with patches and drinking alcohol and changed my nutrition. And I tried so often to change but actually now it isn´t even hard. I just do. Don´t know what happened 😀

    Greetings from Germany.

  • Tom

    Agreed man, spectacular read.

    Here’s the kicker, though (and something I’m really trying to figure out): how do you take a long term reward – like feeling better, fitting in your clothes better, better health, etc. – and turn it into a short term reward that can be used to support the habit loop.

    That’s really the missing piece of the puzzle. We all try to create new habits all the time, but usually fail. Why? Because the reward for the behavior we’re trying to replace is usually immediate and powerful (eating chocolate delivers an immediate reward to the brain, while feeling healthy and active not only isn’t delivered immediately, it’s also distributed over a much longer time frame so it doesn’t function as a real “hit” of reward).

    Dan Ariely has some really profound thoughts on what he calls “reward substitution.” Check it out here: http://bigthink.com/ideas/20760.

    Another thing I’ve been experimenting with is what Dan and Chip Heath call “shaping the path” in Switch – structuring your environment so it’s nearly impossible to NOT do the behavior you’re looking to do (like working out or eating health) until the intrinsic long-term rewards start to manifest themselves. So think: removing all junk food from your house and having another person in your family do the shopping, or freezing your credit card in a block of ice until you enjoy looking at your bank account grow.

    Just some ideas – it’s really a fascinating topic!

  • Danny

    Have been reading the blog for a while and would definatly appreciate any new motivational books you can recommend

  • http://twitter.com/bjornklockljung Björn Klockljung

    I am also soon finished reading The Power of habits. Great post and a great book I recommend everyone to read.

  • http://twitter.com/reptilegrrl Priscilla

    I came to this site on the recommendation of a friend. The assertion that we all need to eat less food to “get healthy” turned me away immediately, because it is not factually correct. It is a matter of popular imagination rather than science.

    When I see that assertion, my reaction is to think that you are uninformed and obviously not a trustworthy source of health or dietary advice.

  • Katelin

    I happen to LOVE this website and im am super happy i found this website one day. I also think Steve is a trustworthy source of dietary and healthy advice… whatever i dont really care… have a nice day =)

  • http://www.productivesuperdad.com/ Timo Kiander


    Yes, this book is my favorite too 🙂

    Finished it just recently and now I’m looking forward to implement this same pattern in my daily life.

    In fact, I have already started by reducing the sugar in my diet and replacing it healthier (yet as sweet) options.

    So yes, this pattern works – you just have to test enough to find the replacement for you current routines.


  • http://twitter.com/GraphPaperShirt Mark Davis

    Yes on the book suggestions.

    I would like to change the habit of sitting on my butt for a while as soon as I get home instead of working out. I’m a teacher and the workout routine was easy to establish in the summer, but after working with 9th graders for six hours it’s hard to do first thing when I get home…then I put it off until after dinner, and then it’s sometimes skipped completely. I’m going to try changing in to my shorts and t-shirt before leaving school, so I’m ready to go as soon as I get home.

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  • http://twitter.com/darylmander Daryl Mander

    Great post Steve, I’m big into focusing on habit change at the moment as well and “The Power of Habit” was already high on my “to read” list, I think I might have to bump it up a few notches and read it next. I have been testing a couple of apps for habit change: one called “Lift” and one called “Way of Life”. Lift was a bit buggy, but I highly recommend “Way of Life”. It let’s you log whether you performed a habit each day, then track over a period of weeks and months how consistent you were at performing that habit. My habit I’m working on is 100 press ups and 100 squats every morning after morning run with the dog. So far the app’s been helping me stick to that pretty well! P.S. Yes I would be up for more book reviews, I’m a regular reader and a bit of a book worm 🙂

  • Samantha

    Thank you for that suggestion – I’m downloading Way of Life now!

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  • Andrew Mac

    I’m going to slowly build habits for an end-of-the-day routine so that everything is ready for the next day, I get enough time from screens and other electronics before bed, and plenty of sleep.

    I’m hoping the immediate satisfaction will be feeling well rested and refreshed the next morning.

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  • Aron p

    I’m trying to figure out if I’m really trying to do to much off the bat. Going to gym changing diet and quitting smoking. I think I’ll have to ease into them all a little bit at a time. But I think going to gum and eating correctly will help me quit smoking

  • Inno

    I work evening shifts, so my entire day is shifted from most by about 4 hours. I get up at 11am, work by 2pm, home by 11pm, dinner, etc. Alas, retail!

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