Like it or not, everyone has habits.

Whether it is a good routine like teeth-brushing or a bad pattern like nail-biting, habits form the foundation of our daily rhythms.

A habit is essentially an action or pattern that is repeated regularly. Often routines become behaviors that are done unconsciously or without much thought, similar to a computer program that runs on a schedule.

When someone takes the same route to work every day, it’s not uncommon for them to arrive and not have a clear memory of the trip. The drive is such an ingrained pattern that it almost seems to happen on its own.

When Habits Help and When They Harm

Routines are a good thing because they allow people to be efficient in their day-to-day tasks. Having to think about every action or behavior and choose how to execute it would waste a lot of brainpower. Putting some jobs on autopilot frees up the brain to engage in other things. (1)

Not all customs are good, however, and much of the work of wellness involves breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones.

If one or more of these areas is out of balance or causing stress, then feelings of wellness can easily slip away.

Your habits influence your health and wellness.

The Shape of a Habit

Most habits follow a simple pattern: a cue leads to behavior that results in a reward. (2) For example, the signal of sitting down to watch TV in the evening may lead someone to eat junk food. The comfort from enjoying pleasurable food is the reward. The more often this pattern is repeated, the more entrenched the routine will become.

Changing an ingrained mannerism is not easy but understanding how habits are made presents the opportunity to break the pattern.

Three Steps to Change a Habit

1) Understand the Cues That Lead to Unhealthy Behavior

When it’s time to change, step one is evaluating the problem. Identifying what cue is triggering a bad habit is like finding the source. Noticing that a craving for junk food follows the act of sitting down to watch TV at night is a big clue as to how the unhealthy behavior is triggered and where to target change.

1) Understand the cues that lead to unhealthy behavior

2) Create a New Cue

It’s not enough to decide to stop eating junk food. Bad habits exert a powerful pull due to the release of dopamine in the brain. (1) Dopamine produces a pleasurable feeling and a craving for the behavior to continue.

Breaking the habit requires intentional action that interrupts the cue’s pattern. If sitting down to watch TV is the trigger for a junk food craving, then the most effective way to break the habit may be not to sit down to watch TV. Removing the cue entirely addresses the unhealthy behavior at its source.

Be mindful. Create a new cue

3) Substitute a New Healthy Behavior

The brain will likely continue to crave the dopamine hit. Creating a new habit that offers a healthy pleasurable experience can calm the desire for unhealthy behaviors.

Activities like exercise, being in nature, engaging in a hobby, or spending time with a loved all induce the brain’s dopamine response. (3) Choose a new habit that both enjoyable and healthy.

Break old habits by substituting a new healthy behavior.

Healthy Habits Are Essential to Wellness

The healthier habits we can create, the better overall wellness we will experience. Over time good habits become like a snowball rolling downhill. The healthier activities we engage in, the more we will want to.

There is no one-size-fits-all for changing habits, but these three steps are an excellent place to start.