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How to change a habit

In partnership with Dr Gina Cleo

There are two main ways to break a habit

Young man with dark brown hair wearing gym gear and running along a beach path
Young man with dark brown hair wearing gym gear and running along a beach path

Now that you’ve identified a habit that you want to kick, and the actions triggering it what’s the next step?

Dr Gina Cleo of the Habit Change Institute says there are two main ways to break a habit.

Option 1: Avoid the “triggers”

“No trigger equals no routine (or habit),” Gina says.

Not sure what that means? Gina gives the classic example of coming home after work and heading straight to the kitchen for a snack.

“You’re essentially being triggered by your environment of walking through the door and then into the kitchen. If you continue to do that, the sequence and the habit will continue.”

Her tip? Avoid the kitchen.

“You can’t avoid coming home, but you can certainly change what you do as soon as you get home and break the cycle of routine and reward.”

Instead, try going into your bedroom, where you have your trainers ready, and go for a walk.

Or what if your best mate is a smoker, and when you visit their house you indulge in your social-smoking habit? You can’t stop seeing your friend, but you can meet them at a public place where smoking isn’t allowed or more difficult.

Option 2: Change the habit

“If you can’t avoid the trigger, you have to change the routine (habit) into something else,” Gina says. “That’s harder to do, but possible.

“Say that when you walk past the downstairs café of your work building, your habit is to stop and get a sweet treat that you enjoy. You can’t avoid going past the café, but you can order a healthier option.”

Gina says breaking a habit doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a reward. If the reason you walked past the café was to enjoy a break from work, you can still enjoy a reward by perhaps going for a walk and listening to a stimulating podcast instead.

What about looking at phones or social media first thing in the morning? The most practical option is to leave the phone in another room, Gina says. Yet some people perceive this as a barrier in case they don’t hear the phone’s morning alarm.  

“Try keeping it in the ensuite, if you have one,” she says.  

When the alarm goes off, you’ll have to get up and you’ll create a new habit.

Tips for creating daily healthy habits  

  • Move your body daily - Once you experience the rewards of having a regular exercise routine, you’ll have good reason to maintain it.

  • Take a break - Even five minutes every hour away from what you’re doing will help re-energise your brain and boost your energy. If you’re tired and stressed, it’s harder to avoid bad habits because you’re not in a state of self-care.

  • Prioritise sleep - Keep a good sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at similar times. Don’t burn the candle at both ends all week then try and catch up on the weekend.

Top tips for weight management

  • Stick to a meal routine - For some people that might mean eating three times a day, for others it might be five times a day. 

  • Take caution with portions - A simple “life hack” is to use a smaller plate, Gina says. “We’re used to seeing a certain amount of food on our plate – that in itself is a habit. If we use a smaller plate, your brain doesn’t necessarily notice a smaller plate – it just notices that the plate is full.”

  • Focus on your food - Be mindful and slow down when you’re eating. Avoid eating when you’re distracted.

Learn more about the science of habit formation here and how triggers work with our article: What makes a habit stick?

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Dr Gina Cleo wearing a red top

In partnership with

Dr Gina Cleo

Dr Gina Cleo is one of Australia’s leading wellbeing experts, with a PhD in habit change. She is a dietitian, but Dr Gina’s passion for wellbeing extends beyond just what we eat. She has dedicated her career to helping people understand their habits and how small, consistent steps can impact health and wellbeing. Gina has a secret love-affair with Microsoft Excel and chai lattes.