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How to spot your habit triggers (so you can change them)

In partnership with Dr Gina Cleo

In order to break a bad habit, you've got to spot your triggers

20-year-old student wearing striped pyjamas and looking at his phone in bed
20-year-old student wearing striped pyjamas and looking at his phone in bed

Hands up if you’ve got a habit that you’re keen to break! While most have a habit we’d like to get rid of, we don’t always know how to go about it. 

Dr Gina Cleo, director of the Habit Change Institute, says the first step is to understand how habits work.

“Habits follow a three-step process,” she explains. “There’s the trigger, the routine (the habit itself) and the reward (the pleasure we get from the habit).”

Some of the most common triggers that drive our habits fall into these categories:   

  • Time – morning, lunchtime or evening

  • Location –  the place that we’re in

  • Emotion – how we’re feeling

  • People – who we’re around

  • Preceding actions – something we’ve just done that might trigger a habit

Habits stick because our brain forms pathways that support that behaviour – learn more about the science of habit formation with our article, What makes a habit stick?.

Common triggers for common habits

Overeating or non-hungry snacking is a common habit that people want to break, Gina says. So, what category do triggers for this habit typically fall in?

“One is the people you’re around,” Gina says. “We know that the more people who are sitting at a table, the more likely you are to overeat.”

That could explain those full bellies at family and friend gatherings!

Emotion is another, she adds.

“You might be in the car feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes just seeing the fast-food chain sign can trigger the habit for a takeaway, even if you’re not hungry.”

Meanwhile, a place-related habit could be visiting a smoker friend’s house, triggering you to indulge in your social-smoking habit.

And if you have a habit of mindlessly checking your emails, you may see an email from your favourite clothing brand spruiking discounts, leading you to make an unplanned purchase that blows your budget. Tip for over-spenders: Unsubscribe from email lists!

For context, Gina says it’s important to note that these five main trigger categories also drive our more mundane habits.

“For example, a place-related habit is when you sit in the car and you’re automatically triggered to put on your seatbelt. You don’t need to remember to put it on.”

How one habit leads to another

Knowing the reason for your habit ­– and the triggers that you’re vulnerable to – can also help you avoid negative knock-on effects that stem from one habit.

Take the late-afternoon lull (a time trigger) that many of us experience. It triggers a habit for a caffeine or sugar hit. This habit may not be a problem for some, but for others, having caffeine later in the day could disrupt their sleep. They then start the next day tired, press the snooze button one too many times and skip the morning exercise they’d planned.

“One habit feeds off another,” Gina says. “When we break one habit, we disrupt the flow of the one that follows that.”

Learn more about how to ditch those habits once and for all with our article, How to change a habit.

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.