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What makes a habit stick?

In partnership with Dr Gina Cleo

Discover how habits stick with Dr. Gina Cleo

70 year old man doing a plank at the gym with his personal trainer
70 year old man doing a plank at the gym with his personal trainer

Let’s be honest, most of us have some sort of habit we’d prefer to ditch. Be it grabbing a sweet treat to go with our morning coffee, coming home from work and cracking open bottle of wine, staying up too late (again!), scrolling through social media or even biting our nails.

On the flipside, there are probably a few more habits we’d like to form – think: more exercise, less screen time, healthier eating or being less distracted and more productive.

So what exactly is a habit? Dr Gina Cleo, director of the Habit Change Institute, explains that habits are an “automatic” behaviour.

“A habit is something we do without any conscious thought, and it’s something that we do in response to a trigger and involves a reward.”

Gina notes that many habits are an everyday part of life, and we’d feel “weird” if we didn’t do them. For example, putting our keys on the hook so we can find them again is a habit automatically triggered when we walk in the front door. Or putting our phones on silent to stop our sleep from getting interrupted is a habit triggered when we go to bed.

But what about those “bad” habits that hold us back from where we want to be?

Are my habits good or bad?

Firstly, while we tend to label habits as good or bad, Gina says that habits are relative to the individual – so what might be considered a good habit for one person, might be not so good for someone else.

“Whether it’s a good or bad habit depends on if it’s going to get you closer or further from your own goals.”

Gina says the most common habits people want to break because they don’t align with their goals are:

Common mistakes when trying to break habits

Even when backed by a hefty dose of enthusiasm, Gina says some people make the mistake of trying to break too many habits at once without a plan for how they will actually do it.

What about going cold turkey? Gina says if you avoid the trigger for the habit then this approach could work, especially if the habit is fairly new and not ingrained in your life. Yet going cold turkey can be much harder for habits developed over years.

“There’s no right or wrong way,” she says. “It depends on the habit and the person.”

Related: How to spot your habit triggers

How habits take hold

Gina says it takes an average of 66 days of repeated behaviour to form a habit — or 18 days at the least and 254 days at the most.

And if you’ve formed a habit or routine that’s getting in the way of your goals, it can be hard to break because of the way you’ve (inadvertently) programmed your brain.

“When you create a new habit, you are creating a new neural pathway and physically changing your brain,” Gina says.

That might sound intense, but the good news is that when you stop a habit, those neural pathways die off and go away, Gina explains.

“Once you understand the concepts of how to change a habit, you can implement them in any area of your life.”

To break a habit, learn how to identify your habit triggers, then make a plan to ditch that behaviour.

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.