Could Your ‘Bad’ Habits Help You Progress?

When you woke up this morning, what did you do first?

Did you jump in the shower?

Check your email or social media on your phone?

Clean your teeth?

Eat Breakfast?

Which way did you go to work? When you arrived did you grab a coffee with a colleague? When you got home did you put your training gear on and go to the gym or did you pour a drink and put your feet up in front of the TV?

All of these little things we do day to day, week to week feel like well thought out decisions and choices but they’re not… they’re habits.

Individually they feel small, unimportant but accumulatively over time these habits shape our lives.

Our body, our health and how we look and feel.

Our careers, productivity our relationships with family and friends.


Fig.1 Creating A Habit (Image Courtesy of

My main area of interest is Nutrition and whilst I enjoy discussions around calories, energy balance, macro nutrients etc (Im a thrill seeker I know) as important as these are to peoples fat loss and body composition goals, most people know enough about these basic principles to make a start.

So why do so many people still struggle to lose weight? or have short term success hit a goal but ‘fall off the wagon’ all to quickly and end up back at square one or worse.

Now the majority of ‘diets’ work, the 5:2 diet, intermittent fasting, IIFYM (if it fits your macros), Low Carb, Calorie and Macronutrient Cycling, Meal Replacement Shakes and a long list of others and however they’re dressed up they are just a method of putting someone in a calorie deficit (this is a blog for another day). The issue for most is sticking to the damn thing for long enough to get to your goal and then remaining there.

Understanding your current habits and how to change them could be the key to finally getting to you goals and staying there!

A habit Is a three stage loop:  (Also See Fig.1)

  1. A Cue – This is a trigger for your brain to go into auto-pilot and decide which habit to use.
  2. A Routine – This can be physical, mental or emotional.
  3. A Reward – This helps the brain decide if this loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time this loop becomes more and more automatic until it just happens without really ‘thinking’.

You begin to anticipate the reward when the cue happens so the routine just seems to happen…

Think of a ‘craving’ that you have. 

Could be biscuits with a cup of tea at work.

Someone puts the kettle on… Thats enough for you to start thinking the biscuits in the cupboard, you may even start salivating. Then before you know it your 5 biscuits in and not even thought about it whilst you’ve been catching up with some colleagues.

This is a daily habit, that isn’t really helping with your fat loss goals.

The time comes when we decide to make a change we say “you know what, Im aware I probably eat too many biscuits over the week so I’m not going to do this anymore”.

We’ve all tried to just SAY NO to the biscuits.

And we have some short term success from this restriction but eventually we cave, because we keep anticipating the reward and its doest come, will power alone will eventually run out.


The Cue and the Reward are still there!

​So unless we fight the habit and find a new routine the pattern will continue. (see Fig.2)


Fig.2 Changing an existing habit

We need to first experiment to find the CUE and the ACTUAL REWARD. (I say actual because we sometimes think we do things for one reason but it could be something completely different)

We need to Identify the Cue.

To do this write down the following when the ‘urge’ hits:

Time of day
Emotional State (how do you feel)
Other People (who is around)
Immediately Preceding Action (what you did just before)

After several days this could highlight patterns, (this is why I like food diaries too, provided you report honestly they are a great tool)

It could be that at around 2pm every day this urge hits. 
It could be that when you get stressed the urge hits.
It could be that when you walk past the staff room to the photocopier the urge hits.

​What ever it is we can hopefully see some patterns emerge.

Once you’ve identified the Cue we can look at the Reward.

In the case of the biscuit break the reward could be one of several things:

  1. Hunger (the obvious one)
  2. The socialising and catching up with colleagues 
  3. The time away from the desk to switch off from work 
  4. The stimulation from the tea / coffee (caffeine)

We need to experiment with new ‘good’ routines that can replace and over power the ‘bad’ behaviours yet still deliver the reward we are after. 

  1. Hunger – swap the biscuits for an apple or some greek yoghurt. 
  2. Socialising – change the environment, go to a colleagues desk and catch up there.
  3. Time away from desk – Go for a walk on your break.
  4. Stimulation – Try a different caffeinated drink like green tea something you wouldn’t associate with dunking your biscuits.

These are just ways to experiment to find what it is exactly you’re looking for. What is the reward?

Once back to work set an alarm for 15 minutes then when it goes off ask yourself if you’ve satisfied the need. This could help you figure out which reward we are actually looking for and help us decide on a new routine for to apply.

Only when we know the Cue and the Reward can we begin to insert the new routines. 

Same Cue – New Routine – Same Reward (similar, or more favourable)

Lets say for this example that it turned out that around 2pm the urge was hitting.

You could set an alarm for 2pm this is the Cue for the new routine.

This could be you take a healthier snack option to work that you can control the intake of. You eat this at your colleagues desk whilst catching up for 10 minutes in the afternoon.

The reward is that you’ve satisfied your hunger and had a catch up too.

Obviously, Its simple to describe and write a blog about it, this doesn’t mean its easy to do.

Genuine habit change will take determination, you have to want to change it and you have to believe you can change it.

It will take time, patients, repeated efforts, trial and error. 

But the more we repeat the behaviour the more automatic it will become.

You cant extinguish an old habit, you can only change it. But once we know the Cues and Rewards we can at least begin to apply some of the tactics.

The Framework (The Power of Habit – Charels Duhigg)

  1. Identify the Routine
  2. Experiment with Rewards
  3. Isolate the Cue
  4. Have a Plan

Sam & Team RMF


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