Habits, Routines and Lasting Change

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Most of us have things we do (or don’t do) that are bad for us. We shrug our shoulders and shake our heads when we think about trying to change those habits. I have been thinking a lot lately about habits as I began to despair of my ever-growing waistline. I have grown out of the habit of exercising regularly. I have grown into a habit of munching on one thing after another after dinner at night. I know these are bad habits. But it’s so hard to make lasting change! Our habits and routines seem stuck like glue, but they don’t have to be. There are some proven stages to driving lasting change, and plenty of things you can do to increase your motivation for change and your chances of success.

Habits and routines

Let’s start with understanding habits and routine. Basically, a habit is a single behavior that we use repeatedly. An example is that I eat when I watch TV. A routine is the combination of all our habits. It’s the things that we do repeatedly – or on a regular basis. Get up at a certain time, have breakfast a certain way, brush our teeth at night or in the morning, take a certain route to go the work, etc. My routine includes eating dinner, walking the dogs and sitting down to watch a movie with my husband.

Routines enable us to go on “auto-pilot”. It takes less effort to do things when we are familiar with doing them a certain way. But that “auto-pilot” also makes it harder to change things because we aren’t thinking about what we are doing, we are doing it automatically. So, in my case, my routine does NOT include exercising and it includes sitting down in front of the tv every night snacking my way through whatever I am watching. Something has to give.

The Stages of Change

So now, let’s talk about the steps for driving lasting change. The Stages of Change Model, developed by Prochaska and DiClemente has 5 primary stages, 6 of if you count Precontemplation. The cycle really starts when you recognize the need to change.

Contemplation – you recognize you need to change and are thinking about doing something.

Preparation – you decide to change and start to decide how and take small steps towards doing so

Action – you start to change your behavior

Maintenance – you have maintained the new behavior for 6 months or more

Lapse – you revert back to previous behavior or habits – temporarily or permanently

So, here’s the deal. To change your behavior, you have to think about the behavior you want to change and decide what you are going to replace it with. From there, you have to start doing it. Maybe you are going to work up to where you want to get to gradually. Now you have a fresh new habit, but it is entirely probable that you will lapse at some point in the cycle. The key is to recognize that you have lapsed and decide to get back on track.

Eventually, after having gone through this cycle it is possible to reach the Termination (I prefer to call it Hallelujah) stage. This is when you don’t have to think about it anymore because it is truly baked into your routine and you never ever relapse. With things like diet and health, most of us never get to the Hallelujah stage because life is full of little temptations and curveballs which throw us into Lapse mode.


Clearly, I have been in lapse mode for some time now on my eating and exercise habits and routine. To get back on track I needed to work on my motivation. We get motivation from the expected value of the change, our self-confidence in our ability to change and our social context. If you’re in a repetitive lapse cycle, struggling to make change last, you’ll want to spend some time looking at the value of the expected outcome from the change. The outcome you expect has to be more important to you than the negative impact from your existing habit. Sit down and scratch out a simple pros and cons view if you make the change and if you don’t make the change. When the cons for NOT making the change are stronger than the pros for the new habit, you should start to have some momentum.

The size of my stomach is a motivator but not quite enough. My rising cholesterol rate is an added motivator. My dad died at 28 from cholesterol – that’s a pretty powerful motivator. So – now that I’m motivated, I need to create a new habit within my routine. I thought about how I could change my routine to include exercise and whether there were any other motivators I could add. Because continuous learning is hugely important to me, I always have a stock of videos and reading material I want to catch up on. I decided to start blocking time on my calendar to get on the treadmill and watch videos from my learning list. So – I combined exercise with something that motivates me – learning. And I forced myself to calendar a specific time every day to do it.


Self-confidence and social context are also important in motivation. We need to feel confident that we are capable of what we are trying to change. If you haven’t done something before you may need to work on your confidence. Setting goals in small increments and celebrating small successes can help grow your self-confidence. In my case, I have made exercise a part of my regular routine in the past and it has worked very well for me. I am confident because I have made it work before even if I did end up lapsing.

Social context is your moral support. We can all use some encouragement from others. You may want to think about someone else who can help you stay accountable. Share your intent to change with someone. If your entourage is not especially encouraging, seek out a different community who share the same value you are aiming for. Having moral support is helpful to maintain change and to get back on track when you lapse. My husband and daughter encourage my exercise and diet efforts, so I am not lacking in moral support.

So, wish me luck in making a lasting change to my exercise habits and routine to start with. Maybe my TV snacking routine will go up on the chopping block next. I am contemplating it! What habits are you ready to change to be a better you? Give me a shout if you’d like some coaching to get you started. Book your free coaching discovery session.