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POSTED Wednesday 8 May 2019

We can all relate to trying to get ourselves into a new habit; whether it’s starting a diet, taking up running or starting to walk to work, there are lots of well-meaning resolutions we try and set ourselves that often deteriorate after a few days or weeks. So what are habits, how to we form them, and more importantly, how do we stick to them?

Maimee Morris, Lifestyle Advisor in the University of Birmingham Sport & Fitness Performance Centre, discusses how we form habits and beliefs, and in turn how this helps us commit to them – even if we have failed in the past!


Boiled down to the simplest explanation, habits or routines could be defined by three basic stages:

  1. REMINDER: The trigger that initiates the behaviour
  2. ROUTINE: The actual behaviour you perform
  3. REWARD: The benefit you get from doing the behaviour

If we take a common example – for instance the ringing of the doorbell – we can see how this habit is formed. When we hear a doorbell ring (the REMINDER), we get up and open the door (the ROUTINE), and by seeing who it is we satisfy our curiosity (the REWARD), therefore closing the loop on that routine. There is that positive reinforcement that the person at the door is delivering something or a visitor (rather than a threat to your safety!) and from that satisfaction we form a positive loop in your brain – telling us that when the doorbell rings, we should answer.


As is often the way when trying to form a new habit, we can go too hard too soon. One way to successfully develop a new routine is by adapting one that currently exists. One we can all probably relate to is the one of the morning alarm: when it goes off, we may press Snooze and opt for a few extra minutes in bed, rather than getting up immediately. But why not try to change it?

Instead, when that alarm goes, we could form a new habit to start off the day in a more positive and energised way. When the alarm goes off (REMINDER), instead of hitting Snooze we could count from 5 to 1 (NEW ROUTINE), doing the following actions as we do so:

5. Switch off the alarm

4. Take a breath

3. Sit up in bed

2. Swing your legs around so your feet are on the floor

           1. Stand up

This is a controlled and simple way to change the existing trigger that we might associate with negatively, and enable us to begin our day!


A common trend when trying to start a new routine is to get enthusiastic about it, set unrealistic expectations and therefore fail, because it’s too much – an example might be saying ‘I’m going to run 5k every day’, which is near impossible for someone to do from nothing. Why not try setting easier goals instead, that might have the same result but are more achievable, and mean you won’t ‘fail’ – for example, ‘I’m going to get up and run down the street every day’. Running down the street (ROUTINE) might be all you can do on some days, but on other days you might feel that you have the energy to keep running, as you’re already up and about.


These new habit will start to settle in once you start receiving positive feedback (REWARD). This might come from your own sentiment of being proud that you were able to get out and do a run, but by sharing your habits with significant people – it might be your partner, work colleague or family member – you are sharing your commitment to your routine, and therefore when you are successful the positive reinforcement from them congratulating you will increase your energy, mood and motivation. Furthermore, the physical rewards (you feel stronger and fitter, and as time goes on you might be able to run further or faster) will also reinforce the habit that you’ve created. Another way to cement in the routine is by treating yourself when you reach a significant milestone – why not buy some new trainers, or join a running club, or splash out on some new training kit?


The forming of this new habit – the morning alarm countdown (REMINDER), followed by getting up and running down the street (ROUTINE), and linked together with the feeling of pride and accomplishment (REWARD) – links together our thoughts, behaviours and emotions, and can be seen even in early life. Children will learn the cycle by doing things like seeing something they want to touch/play with (REMINDER), walking or crawling to it (ROUTINE) and being able to play with it (REWARD), and sometimes it is hard to break those that are already embedded in our lives. But by being aware of your thoughts and challenging unhelpful limiting beliefs – thoughts like ‘what’s the point, I’ll never stick to this’ – habits can be changed. By adapting the way you think about things, rather than what you might already be doing, you can turn these unhelpful thoughts into action – saying instead ‘I can do this! Just a quick run down the road and I’ll feel great’. This stops us getting into the slump of feeling demotivated and staying in bed, and instead encourages us to get up and go.

‘So whatever your new habit or routine might be, why not try picking an existing trigger, begin with an easy new routine and reward yourself – don’t try and do too much in one go, and make sure you match your thoughts to your goals!’


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