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How to break bad habits
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A month ago, I was at wit’s end.
Despite enormous effort to craft an efficient morning routine, our family was falling apart. Kids were rolling out of beds an hour late, dropping their pajamas to the floor and dragging themselves to school. We were late almost every day. Breakfast was a hurried affair. Piano and violin practice, always part of our morning routine, fell completely by the wayside. By the time I managed to get everyone out the door, I was ready for therapy.
The 'habit loop'
About this same time, I started reading the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.
In his book, Duhigg writes about how we fall into habits, both good and bad. He calls it the “habit loop.” Take, for instance, the habit of snacking when I sit down to write. My cue is pulling out my computer for a writing session. This cue leads me to the kitchen, where I root around for a bowl of chips or almonds. This is my routine. I sit down to write, and while I write I munch away, feeling happy because I am writing and eating something tasty. That is the reward. Every day, I loop back to this cue. I’ve been doing it for years, and I do it whether I’m hungry or not. It is an ingrained habit.
We do this with all sorts of things. We check our phones at stoplights. We eat a snack before bed. We drink soda for breakfast. We drop our clothes on the floor instead of putting them away. We gamble or watch too much TV or skip the gym or procrastinate that looming deadline or snap at our kids. Bad habits crop up all around us. Entire industries develop around this habit loop, knowing the intrinsic habits of human nature (read: casinos, online gaming, cigarettes, among many others).
Of course, good habits follow that same habit loop.
We tap into the habit loop for exercise. It makes us feel good, and if we can control the urge to stay in bed, getting up to go for a jog has its positive rewards. So does calling a friend on a regular basis, choosing an apple over a cookie, reading a good book instead of going online, finishing a project before deadline and hanging up your clothes instead of dropping them to the floor.
Tapping into the loop
Often, we fall into bad habits because the rewards are more immediate. Bad habits shout louder, and often they don’t take as much work as the good habits. It’s more work to eat an apple than a cookie. It takes more brain power to read a book than watch TV. We battle entropy and human nature every day, as well as those industries fighting to keep our bad habits alive.
Which leads to my dilemma with our family’s morning routine. How could I turn some of our family’s bad habits around to good ones?
The answer came from a video game. One day, my kids were fiddling around on the iPad with some bike race game. I heard one son exclaim to the other, “You passed the next level. You get to see the hidden bike!”
A lightbulb went on. Like any blue-blooded child of this generation, my children are hugely motivated by games. They love the sense of achievement, of twinkling tokens and movement from level to level, of ratcheting points and hidden gems. Video game creators are champions of tapping into the habit loop.
I realized if I wanted to motivate my kids, I needed to make our family routine more like a video game.
I took a giant poster board and wrote a snappy name — "Super Lewis Smash: Beginner Level" — at the top.
Under that were cards, Stage 1: 250 points. Stage 2: 500 points, and so on, up to 1,000 points. On the back of each card I wrote a small prize: a dollar, a milkshake, an extra hour of media time, etc.
Then I typed up the morning and bedtime routines for each child and posted them on their doors. On the kitchen counter I set a clicker, the kind that tracks numbers on a scrolling window.
For family home evening, I unveiled the plan. The excitement was instantaneous. I’ve never seen my kids get ready for bed so quickly. For the first several days, they raced to the kitchen to ratchet up the clicks, and cheered when they reached the first two levels.
Then something interesting happened. They started forgetting about the poster. I had to start reminding them to record their clicks. But the habit of getting up with an alarm, making their beds, practicing piano and emptying trash cans remained. Even though the reward started to wane, the routine was in place.
Making lasting change
One thing I’ve learned as a parent is to keep the target moving. One system doesn’t work forever. However, I was encouraged to see that with proper motivation, our family didn’t just change our habits; we did a complete 180 turnaround.
That is the point Duhigg makes in his book. With effort and careful calculation, we can change our habits. Duhigg said the simple act of recording what we eat, how much we spend and how much exercise we get each day makes a huge difference. Pinpointing the habit loop — cue, routine, reward — can help us identify how to alter a bad habit into a good one.
Not only that, but entire companies can make changes that create new and better habits. I believe this has enormous implications for our families, church congregations and workplaces. Good habits aren’t something that just happen; they take planning and brainpower.
I saw the result in my own family. I see it every day as my kids, without being reminded, spring out of bed, get dressed, make their beds and start plinking away on the piano. We’ve had a culture shift around here.
That’s a habit I hope will stick.
Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at Her email is