End an old habit, begin a new habit

Apr 2, 2020

In evaluating a habit the following framework can be useful. Habits consist of 3 parts .. Cues, Behaviours and Rewards. Repeating, over and over, 1,2,3,1,2,3,...

  1. Cues which are reminder or triggers which lead to a behaviour.
  2. Behaviours lead to rewards.
  3. Rewards which lead us recalling and noticing relevant cues. The circle is then complete

Justin experiences a lot of anxiety and loneliness, particularly when he is home alone. This anxiety becomes a CUE to go to the freezer and spoon out a bowl of his favourite maple walnut ice cream, turns on the TV news while checking out tinder ("just for a minute").  This is Justins behaviour that follows from the cue (anxiety). The ice cream tastes great, its a familiar pleasure and the quick sugar rush lifts his mood. Tinder is a welcome distraction from anxious thoughts and often leads to fantasising about an alternative life. Justin then is able to drifts off to sleep but by the following evening the anxiety is back and he immediately thinks of the 2 litre pail of icecream in the freezer and feels some guilty anticipation (especially as his doctor has warned him that he is prediabetic). This also feeds Justins anxiety. Justin hasn't actually met anyone from Tinder yet and he rates his confidence at just 2/10

Cues  = anxiety, being home alone and having icecream in the freezer

Behaviour = eating icecream, watching the TV news and scrolling Tinder, buying icecream.

Reward = temporary reduction in anxiety, distraction from a painful reality, some delicious fantasies of an alternative life and a sound sleep.

Justin looks at his cues, behaviour and rewards and is no longer just contemplating a change but has decided to make a change ...but just doesn't know how.

Justin's habit seemed to work to an extent in that he could get some reduction in anxiety and an increase in sleep with his habit but on the downside he was gaining weight, insomnia was beginning to come back and he realised that he was increasingly lonely in this bubble he had created. On balance the he could see the habits' disadvantages outweighed the advantages.

Often an exisiting habit can be modified by paying attention to the Cue and the Reward while changing the problem Behaviour.

Justins New Habit

Cue    Anxiety, feeling lonely (still the same cues as always). Justin has put on his freezer door a picture of his next planned holiday  (in Rarotonga), a new Cue.  His new affirmation / belief which is " I can do it as I focus" and "together we can all support each other"

New Behaviour.   Justin has a plan he developed with his counsellor.

  1. No ice cream goes into supermarket trolley. Substitutes is fruit and veges and nuts to quickly make smoothies for snacks.
  2. Justin has an exercise plan including walking and weights, 3 times per week.
  3. Justin has a plan for time at home that now includes reading, watching inspirational / motivational clips on youtube and a break from Tinder for 3 months.

4 . Justin is volunteering for an animal welfare organisation.


  1. Justin notices that he is less anxious after his workouts, his new community connection and his new viewing habits.
  2. Justin notices his body change in the bathroom mirror every morning. He likes what he sees ! He feels proud.
  3. Justin feels in charge of his life again and his confidence he now rates at 7/10 and rising.
  4. Justin feels appreciated and connected through his volunteer work and his social network is growing.
  5. Justin feels so good about this new habit he feels empowered to make more changes. Feeling empowered has lead to less anxiety.

Once a habit has been in place for about 3 weeks new neural pathways can be seen  grow in the brain and old neural pathways associate with the "bad habit" begin to atrophy, loosing "bandwidth", loosing power. The new habit then begins to take over, almost unconsciously, becoming routine.  To want to make a change to a habit we need to really need to want to make it happen and we need to have a willingness to stretch our comfort zone. A bigger comfort zone always results in increased confidence and increasingly less anxiety.

Always begin the new habit, with a S.M.A.R.T. plan, while you taper right off the old habit. Have a plan for "trigger times". Don't despair if you backslide now and then !

Your counsellor can help you put together a plan that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant for you and with a time frame. Your counsellor can also help you put together a plan for "trigger times" when you might break the new habit.

Justins unwanted behaviour could have been to do with alcohol, smoking, porn, gambling etc. The habit changing process is similar. We look at the cues, modify the behaviour to find healthier ways of getting rewards we seek. The collateral, additional rewards of new habits are often surprisingly unexpected.

To begin a new we need to be motivated with a clear reason and purpose around change and a clear picture of the consequences of avoiding change.

Also,  see my posts on

Martin Fraser, B.A. (Hons) Psyc. Dip Counselling.

Particular interest in enhancing resilience in my community against Depression, Anxiety, Isolation and Addictions. Member of NZ Assoc Counsellors.

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