Co-author: Laura Garcia, PhD
Old habits die hard, they say. If you’ve ever tried to, say, go to bed earlier every night or stop snacking after 8 p.m., you probably know it’s true: adopting a new healthy habit is tricky. It involves time, patience, and more or less rewiring your brain to get it unstuck from following the same old, well-formed neural pathways. Yet understanding the reality of habit formation is powerful. Knowing more about what really works—e.g., starting small, staying consistent, celebrating wins—can set you up for long-term success.
So we’re taking a closer look at the intricacies of habit formation, the role of the brain in this process, and practical strategies for cultivating lasting change.
The science of habits and the habit loop
Habits can be defined as actions or behaviors that are triggered by a cue, causing an automatic impulse to act that gets stronger through repetition. The process of forming a habit is often described as a habit loop: the ongoing cycle in which a cue or event triggers a behavior, the behavior itself takes place and is followed by a reward.
For example, many of us wake up every morning and make a cup of coffee without really thinking about it. The cue or trigger might not be the same for everyone, nor is the reward. For some, the cue may be the sunlight pouring in the window or a morning alarm going off, the behavior is brewing or drinking the coffee, and the reward may be an energy boost or the pleasure of the taste.
What’s glorious about habits is that some are automatic. We don’t have to think about things like walking or lifting our fork, freeing up our brains to focus on things that need our immediate conscious thought like, oh wow, that coffee is too hot to drink. But forming new habits relies on rewards and activating reward centers in the brain, which triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.
As habits are repeated, they become more and more ingrained. In other words, the neural network in your brain hard-wires the association between a cue in your environment and the behavior. These changes in the brain make it a lot more complex when we’re trying to stop or change a behavior, start a new one, or restart an old one.
The role of the brain in habit formation
There are two main areas of the brain involved in processing behaviors:
Cortex: The outermost part of the brain responsible for processes like memory, thinking, learning, reasoning, and problem-solving along with emotions and awareness of your senses and some of the functions related to them.
Striatum: Located in the center of the brain and responsible for goal-directed movements and decision-making activity like preparation, initiation, and execution.
Both of these parts of the brain are further broken into different areas and networks, which are involved in processing two different types of behaviors.
Habitual behaviors, or habits, are inflexible and difficult to change. They connect through the corticostriatal sensorimotor loop, including neural networks relying more strongly on established cues and rewards.
Goal-oriented behaviors rely on decision-making and desired outcomes. These behaviors require active thought and planning, as they involve setting a goal, developing a plan to achieve it, and executing that plan. They’re involved in a loop called the corticostriatal associative loop, making them start and land in different places in the brain than habitual behaviors. Science shows us that a goal-oriented behavior is easier to change than one that’s habitual. In planning a goal, you can consciously contemplate the situation that triggers a behavior and more easily make a change. For instance, say you want to start walking after dinner every evening. Your brain can recognize the situation (dinner time) and with planning and execution over repeated days, it can start to turn the new behavior (a walk afterward) into something you do automatically, without much thought.
All of these variations in what causes cues, rewards, and differences in brain signals across types of behaviors, makes changing habits (and forming new ones) really complex. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all scenario. To form a new behavior, your brain needs time to form those neural networks along with repetition to make them ingrained.
How to change behavior and develop new habits for weight loss
Stanford University researchers have identified 15 different types of behavior change based on the Fogg Behavior Model. In order to make a change, the FBM says you need three things to happen at the same time:
The ability to do the action
A trigger, prompt or cue
If one of these three is missing, the behavior change won’t happen. For example, prompts are much more likely to fail to trigger a behavior if the motivation needed is too high or you don’t have the ability to do it (like exercising on a hurt ankle).
It all also depends on both the type of change you’re trying to make and the timing. So consider whether you want to stop or decrease an existing behavior or start a new behavior, restart a familiar behavior, or increase an existing behavior. The period of time matters, too—that is, whether you’re trying to do something just once versus adding it to your routine for say one week or adopting it forever.
Putting habit building into practice for weight loss at Found
Based on research, we believe the best strategy to make an action—like adding more movement into your day—a part of your normal routine is to start with small changes or habits. So you try that strength training routine once, see if it jams with your life, and then progress to a goal to do it for an extended period of time (say, once a week), with the bigger goal of it becoming a regular part of your life.
Breaking any goal up into smaller steps makes it much more approachable. And Found is designed to help you do exactly that, keep track of your progress—and stay motivated through it all. Here’s how.
Support: Your Found Coach and our community will help keep you motivated—and hold you accountable—with check-ins right in the app.
Levels: Our app helps you progress through behavior change, from doing something one time, all the way to making it an automatic habit. You can also get guidance to help you set goals starting at a level that’s right for your ability.
Prompts: Set reminders and notifications in the app to help you stay on track.
Tracking: Track your progress in the app, celebrate your wins, and share successes with the community.
Content: Find exclusive articles full of tips to make setting goals and forming new habits easier
9 tips to help you build—and stick to—new healthy habits for weight loss
1. Recognize and change environmental triggers and cues. This is the hardest part—putting conscious thought into recognizing triggers in your environment that might lead to behaviors you want to stop. For example, maybe your dinner plate is larger than it needs to be, and you’re filling it with food just because there’s extra space. Switching to a smaller plate can really help you stick to reasonable portions. You also want to look for opportunities to add cues that’ll lead to behaviors you want to start—like putting your sneakers by the door to remind you to take a morning walk. All of this takes some practice, but making changes to your environment is key to starting the habit loop—and giving your brain those rewards it’s always seeking—and making habits stick.
2. Start small. Slow and steady behavior changes wins the race. Avoid an all-or-nothing approach or a go-big-or-go-home attitude. Use smaller goals to achieve the bigger outcome—weight loss. Focus on the process of your weight loss journey and how you’re progressing. Instead of saying to yourself, I need to lose 20 pounds, start with one tiny change that’s so easy to do that you have no excuse. Try a 5-minute walk after breakfast three times a week, or adding a ½ cup of vegetables at dinner. Really focus on those victories off the scale.
3. Try habit stacking. Another strategy that we like is habit stacking, where you commit to doing a behavior after something else you already do normally. For example, if you want to add more movement to your day you could say, after dinner, I’ll walk for 10 minutes. The idea here is that attaching a small behavior change onto something that’s already a part of your routine is easier, and requires less motivation, so you’re more likely to stick to it. Win-win!
4. Give it time. It takes time to form habits, so try not to compare yourself to friends or family members who might be on a similar journey. On average, it takes about two months for people to make a new, small health behavior automatic. However, the amount of time varies a ton from person to person and research shows that it can take anywhere from four days to around a year. If it’s going slowly, remind yourself that it’s OK!
5. Swap a negative habit for a positive one. It is often easier to replace a bad behavior with a new behavior, rather than quitting cold turkey. For example, rather than trying to stop eating sugary desserts forever, try switching them out for some whole fruit instead.
6. Find keystone habits. Start to recognize your keystone habits—those that produce a ripple effect leading to other positive changes. They’re pretty powerful. For example, getting more sleep may improve your nutritional choices, making it easier to eat healthy overall. Exercising may improve your stress and mood, allowing you to sleep better and have more energy for meal prep even when you’re busy.
7. Reward yourself. And try not to feel bad about it, because rewards are a necessary tool when you’re working on new habits. A reward can create a craving, and the reward part of the habit loop is what actually builds strong habits—remember about your brain’s reward centers! Once a habit is automatic, the neurons in your brain start firing before you even do the behavior, and this is what triggers a craving. This also explains why habits are so hard to break (think about watching someone else eat ice cream, which can trigger you to want that food and before you know it you already have an ice cream cone in your hand).
8. Set reasonable goals. There’s a big difference between increasing or decreasing a behavior and stopping or starting one forever. Sticking to healthy behaviors is key to weight loss and maintenance, but if you restrict yourself too much and make big changes too quickly, you may be less likely to sustain the behaviors necessary for long-term weight care. For example, it’s probably unreasonable to give up your favorite soda for the rest of your life, but maybe you focus first on drinking less of it. You could limit yourself to one or two a week to start.
9. Expect and accept setbacks.
Some days you’ll fall off track, but that doesn’t mean you can’t right the ship. Give yourself some grace and practice self-compassion. Shaming yourself is never helpful, and it could even lead you to regain the weight you worked so hard to lose. Sometimes all it takes is changing up your environment and finding new ways to cue your behavior.
Found is among the largest medically-supported weight care clinics in the country, serving more than 200,000 members to date. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.
Jennifer Clark, PhD, is Found's Senior Research Manager for Clinical Research and Strategy. Laura Garcia, PhD, is a behavioral scientist and Found's Director of Product Research, Applied Science.