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How to Form Healthy Habits (and break free from the bad ones)

Habits, we all have them. Defined as “acquired patterns of behaviour that are regularly repeated until they become almost involuntary”, habits can help us lead a better lifestyle, whether it is to become healthier, smarter, or meet physical and emotional needs. At the same time, habits can also hinder us from our goals.

Whether good or bad, understanding how these behaviours become acquired patterns is key to controlling them. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, provides a framework for understanding habits as cause and effect behaviour patterns. When we have an understanding of how habits are formed, we have a better chance to create positive habits and break free from the negative ones.

How are Habits Formed?

A habit consists of 3 components that encompass the habit loop: the trigger, behaviour, and benefit. The trigger acts as the cue to begin your action. The action is the behaviour or goal that you have set. The benefit is the reward that comes after the behaviour is performed. Strengthening the trigger, the behaviour, and the benefit will help you and your child form good habits.

post it note with words "trigger, behaviour, benefit" that make up the habit loop

The following 5 tips will help your child set positive habits. Each of these strategies encompasses one of the components of habit formation (the trigger, behaviour, and benefit). Applying these strategies will help your child strengthen on each component of the habit loop making the pattern of behaviour stick to the point where the action becomes involuntary.

1. Be consistent (strengthens the trigger)

Consistency is key here and with all things, repetition will allow your child brain’s to remember the task at hand and shift this practice from short term memory to long term. The repetition acts as the trigger to launch the habit loop. Do the task at the same time. Also try to do the task in the same space. Keep it consistent and sooner or later, these cues will automatically lead to the action.

For example, if your child’s goal is to create a habit to do daily math review, set 20 minutes right after dinner or set a specific time (ie. from 4:45-5:15 p.m.) to get it done. If he has his own phone, set a daily timer on it to remind himself to do the task. Allot space in the schedule to get it done.

Besides time, space is a good trigger. If you want your child to set a habit of emptying out her backpack after school, place a bin right where she usually puts her bag down and have her get in the habit of moving the contents over. The bin becomes the trigger which prompts her to unzip her bag.

2. Keep goals small (strengthens the behaviour)

It’s unrealistic to think that your child will instantly become a goal setter and positive habit former. But if you keep the tasks small and simple and easy to achieve, the chances of that behaviour becoming a habit are much higher. We all know the acronym K.I.S.S. and I’ll define it here as “Keep it Super Simple”. Form simple tiny habits to get started and as your child becomes more settled into the routine, create progressively more challenging goals.

For example, don’t set a goal to read every day when your child hasn’t yet built the habit to love reading. Start by setting the goal to read for 15 minutes before bed on Mondays and Wednesdays. After a month, increase the reading sessions to 20 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Also, don’t try to have them break a bad habit by quitting cold turkey. If your child is used to packing a juice box for lunch everyday and you want to limit their sugar intake, start by substituting one day of the week with just water. Then start to replace more days with juice alternatives and pretty soon, your child’s juice intake will decrease.

3. Track progress (strengthens the trigger)

If you are like me, who loves a good checklist, create a chart or table to track progress. When your child can physically see and mark off their progress on a tracker, it helps build consistency. The visual prompt becomes an encouragement to carry on and continue. It’s easy to create your own. You can create a simple check list or use a calendar. Print out my ready-to-use monthly trackers here (like the one you see below). Also check out this article about reducing screen time and try out the activity habit tracker.

monthly habit tracker template

4. Celebrate progress (strengthens the benefit)

Just like setting SMART goals, it’s important to establish a time where we end the tracking and reflect on how we do. This is also a good time to acknowledge progress with a celebration or a small reward.

There are debates around rewards and how we should not be giving out rewards because it doesn’t build intrinsic motivation. As long as the rewards are small and there isn’t an expectation of receiving a material prize each time, celebratory rewards are great. Going out for ice cream or acquiring bonus dollars to earn towards something they want to buy (not the actual purchase) feeds the brain a healthy dose of dopamine which allows them to feel satisfied and motivated for having achieved something.

It’s the benefit that reinforces the habit routine. Whether they had fully followed through with the habit or not, it is important to acknowledge the effort that was put in and to reflect on your child’s accomplishments. It’s a good time to discuss how it all went and to tweak it for the next time. Again, habit formation is an ongoing process. Think growth mindset.

5. Set goals with others (strengthens the benefit)

It’s always more fun when there are others around you who are working on a goal at the same time. Have the whole family involved. Goal setting and forming positive habits is beneficial to everyone, and everyone has something they want to improve and get better at. Be sure to encourage and acknowledge the change in your child’s habit and observe the effect that it has on them. Say “I noticed you’re finishing your math homework more quickly lately. This daily math review you are doing has sure helped with completing your homework faster. You seem to be less frustrated with the questions”. These types of feedback will also inject a dose of dopamine in their brains and build positive reinforcement. These boosts reinforce that there is a benefit to their actions, and this in turn, will motivate them to carry on.

thumbs up

Breaking Bad Habits

Though the examples above primarily focus on forming positive habits, these tips work just as well to break bad habits. With your child, discuss the “bad habit” that they want to break, identify the cues that trigger that habit to form, and find ways to intercept the cue so that the action doesn’t follow. Keep track of how they do and reward the changed behaviour.

For example, my teenage son has a habit of going on his phone as soon as he gets home. He’ll come home, put down his bag, and beeline straight to his room with his phone. It’s gotten to the point where he’s wasting time and not getting other tasks done. We discussed this, and he acknowledges the negative affects. So to break this action, we changed the cue. We put a small box on our kitchen table, and I leave either a granola bar, fruit, cookies, etc. in the box. So when he comes home from school, he sees the box (trigger), puts his phone in (behaviour), and takes out the snack (benefit). The phone stays in the box for a good hour or so, and then he’s welcome to take it and use it. Did this work? Yes, it broke free from his repetitive behaviour to sit with his phone right after school. Did this end all our screen battles? No. It didn’t completely change his screen habits, but we were able to break free from an existing negative one. As with parenting, you can’t win ‘em all...

Forming habits takes time and patience, and with the right mindset, you can help your child successfully set goals to form positive habits. Make it motivating by starting simple and small, and keep it fun with trackers and celebrating progress. Consider the trigger, action, and behaviour in their goals. Know that effort is what counts and encourage everyone in your family, you included, to give it a try.

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