3 steps to breaking bad habits from a world-class willpower expert

Heather McKee

From grazing at the fridge to biting your nails.  Habit change researcher Dr Heather McKee – part of Healthista’s new expert Collective – brings you exactly what it takes to stop for good 

I like to look at habit change like untangling a knot. Habits are complex mesh behaviours, and you can’t resolve them all at once. You must work on untangling them one step at a time, one by one, until the habit knot is sorted.

Let’s take eating too much sugar, for example. This isn’t just one habit alone, but a series of micro-habits all interwoven.


All too often when it comes to changing our habits we focus on the solution, for example giving up sugar, rather than the driver of the behaviour itself, which could be tiredness, stress, boredom or any number of emotions.

To find an intrinsic goal for healthy eating, ask yourself how you want to feel and what type of person does it make you?

Habits are formed through ‘context dependant repetition’, in other words, do something enough times in a certain circumstances and it becomes a habit. They work off a loop consisting of a trigger, a routine and a reward.

The first step is to examine what’s driving these habits the daily cues or triggers that cause you to engage in the bad habit.

I do a temptation tracker exercise with my clients to understand more about when they are tempted most to stray from their goals and why. We then examine their daily behaviours, what the routine is and most importantly the reward.

#1 Work out what you are craving

Through examining the patterns in your habits, you can help determine what is the underlying reward that you are craving. Once you have a better idea of your triggers and rewards you can look to reverse engineer your habits to create healthier patterns of behaviours.

The next step is to start small to tackle this behaviour, so often when it comes to behaviour change we feel like we have to do a whole lifestyle overhaul.

There is absolutely no point in trying to completely transform your habits overnight. Any changes made need to be gradual if they are to be effective and importantly you need to focus on the changes that make most sense to you in the context of the way you live your life.

There is absolutely no point in trying to completely transform your habits overnight

Like untangling a knot, naturally, you would start with the easiest tangles first, working your way systematically through the mesh until eventually the knot was released.

Therefore, starting with the easiest parts first can help you gain positive momentum, confidence and competence to slowly build up to unravelling the tighter and more difficult knots over time.

#2 Train your willpower

We assume that if we want to make big changes to our health, that we have to suffer for it. After setting a new goal, we become really motivated, we promise to go to the gym every day, cut down sugar, cigarettes… the list goes on.

Pursuing all these goals at once tends to put us under unnecessary pressure. Approaching your goals in this way uses up your willpower and ultimately makes you less likely to succeed.

The thing is, willpower is like a muscle if you over train it, it becomes fatigued and you end up not being able to exercise it at all.

However, if you train your willpower in adequate amounts, taking proper rest and recovery, like a muscle it can grow stronger over time.


The truth is adopting healthy habits needs be a gradual process. For it to be sustainable, it needs to be achieved through consistent, small, but positive, changes in your lifestyle.

Interestingly, the research also shows that these smaller, simpler actions become habitual more quickly.

So instead of trying to do everything at once, why not focus on making one small change and doing that consistently?

For example; my clients set themselves one small change each week. Changes such as; planning a healthy snack at 4pm to avoid the biscuit slump, switching to a smaller coffee, taking the stairs at work or aiming to walk 50 or 100 more steps on their fitness tracker each day.

instead of trying to do everything at once, why not focus on making one small change and doing that consistently

These may seem like insignificantly small changes but cumulatively they can have a BIG impact on your long term success. These changes are intentionally tiny so that they don’t feel too punishing or restrictive and therefore they don’t use up too much of our precious willpower.

As these are so small, I call these micro changes.

As cheesy as it sounds, success in habit change is determined by the journey rather than the destination. It’s about what you do each day to work towards your goal.

By setting too high a goal or trying to do too much at once you are essentially setting yourself up for failure. Setting smaller goals or micro changes works in the opposite way. Each time you accomplish your micro change you get a sense of satisfaction from the process and this spurs on your motivation to stick with your goals.

#3 Pick a meaningful goal

So often when it comes to changing our habits we let the outcome (the number on the scales/our paychecks/how many miles we’ve clocked) be the sole indicator of our success.

Goals that are centred around external influences such as our performance or our appearance are known to be sources of extrinsic motivation.


Research has shown that goals that are extrinsically driven are unsustainable long term, especially when it comes to forming healthy habits. These goals need external validation; others to say that you are doing well,  or for the scales to tell you the correct number.

When you focus all your attention on a numbers-based goal, you can start to obsess over that number, that’s when goals become too difficult and we tend  to veer off track.

Research has shown that if you reach your extrinsically motivated goal the enjoyment of being there tends to be fleeting, and is often quickly replaced by a new goal. So you put yourself under pressure to ‘step it up’ which is precisely when we’re most likely to trip, due to high expectations.

On the other hand, goals that really mean something to you. These goals reflect who you are and what you wish to represent as a person. And these are much stickier.

These are known as intrinsic goals as they are intrinsically/internally motivating to you. Intrinsic comes from the Latin word for inward, meaning ‘goods for the soul’.

Because intrinsic goals are linked to your higher values, they are much more motivating over the long term

Examples of intrinsically motivated goals could be that being healthy is important to you because you want to be the best you can be in every aspect of your life, you want to have energy, to feel vital to be able to focus with your work, to be able to be a positive role model for your children.

Because intrinsic goals are linked to your higher values, in other words, the things that matter most to you they, are much more motivating over the long term.

When it comes to staying on track with your healthy habits. It’s not your willpower to resist the temptation that leads to long term success, it’s knowing that that thing you are pursuing is part of who you are and that it has a higher purpose. These kind of intrinsically motivating goals keep you going in the trenches.

To find an intrinsic goal, say for healthy eating, ask yourself how  you want to feel and ask what does it help you achieve, what type of person does it make you?

Instead of feeling frustrated at chasing a fleeting dream you can become more focused, you start to find things you enjoy, so that your ability to stay on track is enhanced.

Heather McKee

Dr Heather Mckee is a habit coach and health behaviour change specialist, consultant, lecturer, speaker and founder of drheathermckee.co.uk 

In 2013 Dr McKee completed her PhD in weight-loss psychology. Her research looked at key strategies for long term weight-loss success and how to build these strategies to help people achieve their goals, without dieting.

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