Why Habits Hold the Key to Successful Weight Loss

Habits. Those nasty things we have that cause all sorts of problems! Like gaining weight, not getting enough sleep, stunted fingernails, and swearing too much.

How can habits be the key to weight loss?

You know as well as I do that habits can be beneficial, too. The issue then becomes, how to break the bad and establish the good.

Why Are Habits the Key to Weight Loss?

A habit is something acquired by frequent repetition, and it’s nearly involuntary.


A habit is an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. It’s a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repitition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.

Most of the time we think about habits, we think of bad ones. Those that move you away from your goals and aspirations.

For instance, say you want to be more healthy and you smoke 🚬. You will probably try to quit smoking many times. But it’s such a habit that you find it very difficult to quit.

Or, maybe you drink too many margaritas 🍹 when you go out after work with your friends.

But these habits obviously benefit you in some way. Maybe smoking has always calmed your nerves, or kept you from gaining weight.

You need to work smarter to develop new habits and replace unhelpful ones!

(without giving up when the going gets tough)

Or going out with friends and colleagues after work is fun, and it’s your main avenue for social interaction.

Even though they are “bad” habits, they serve a purpose in your life, which makes them hard to break.

So, don’t break them, replace them.

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Replacing Bad Habits

Here’s a quote from James Clear, one of the godfathers of habits, in an article on his site:

You don’t need to quit smoking, you just need to return to being a non–smoker. You don’t need to transform into a healthy person, you just need to return to being healthy. Even if it was years ago, you have already lived without this bad habit, which means you can most definitely do it again.

That’s profound. You have to become whatever it is you want. It’s like with values…you’re always moving toward them.

You’re becoming a person who practices kindness. Or you’re becoming a person who runs for her health.

So why not become the you who didn’t smoke, or drink too many margaritas, or bite her fingernails?

Easier said than done, no?

Related Post: The Missing Key To Losing Weight After 50

While researching this post, several articles about habits and weight loss stated things like:

  • drink more water
  • practice mindfulness
  • keep a food diary

All good things, those. But they leave out a very BIG step. Like, HOW do I do those things?

I mean, everyone knows how to drink a glass of water, but how do you start and continue the habit?

Or some more favorites; eat more fruits and vegetables, don’t snack after dinner, go to bed early.

We all know that!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Just stop.

If knowing were the solution to all our bad habits, no one would have bad habits, for crap’s sake!

How Habits Are Formed

Habits are formed in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. This part of the brain was present in ancient man, and is crucial for being able to do life-saving things without having to think about them.

The frontal lobe, on the other hand, developed later in human evolution and is responsible for problem solving, reasoning, making plans, etc.

This part of the brain takes much more energy to use, which is why our brains want to take the easy way out and default to learned and practiced behaviors.

Why is that? Because it’s the brain’s way. Seek pleasure, avoid pain, conserve as much energy as possible.

Because of this almighty rule of the brain, you have to work harder–or smarter–to break or replace habits.

Smarter is the one we’re focusing on, because harder doesn’t usually work long term where your brain is concerned.

Tiny Habits

B J Fogg, PhD, wrote a book by the same name, Tiny Habits.

I’ve read dozens of books and articles about habits over the years.

They all stress that there are 3 (or 3.5 maybe) main components of a habit, but they use different words.

For example, Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book, The Power of Habit, calls them cue, behavior, reward.

James Clear in his also great book, Atomic Habits, calls them cue, craving, response, reward.

Dr. Fogg calls them motivation, ability, and prompt.

Of all the books and studies I’ve read, and all the methods I’ve tried, the Tiny Habits method seems to work best for me, and, I think, for weight loss and health.

Besides that our brains tend toward conservation of energy, pain avoidance, and pleasure seeking, they are also wired in such a way that things we’ve done repeatedly are extremely difficult to change. You’re not lazy, nor do you lack willpower.

And you’re not just a lame excuse for a person. You literally have laid down neural pathways that you default to if given half a chance!


We usually think of motivation as what spurs us on to do something. And of course it is.

But what we don’t usually think about is that we have some form of motivation for every single thing we do.

We don’t have to muster up more motivation. It’s always there.

For example, I get up every week-day morning at 5 O’crappy AM because I want to get a little bit of work done on my blog before I go to my day job.

If I didn’t want to get any work done, I’d get up at 6:00 AM. I don’t want to get up at 6 (or 5:15), but I’m motivated to do it so I can get work done and get my paycheck in a couple of weeks.

So it’s important to note that I don’t feel motivated. It’s not some great “yay!” I get to get up early!!! Lucky me!

You’re motivated to go to the bathroom because you have to pee. Not because you want to stop watching Netflix, etc., or because your bathroom is so beautiful, but because you don’t want to pee your pants.

Or wear diapers.

But motivation is a fickle thing. It waxes and wanes. In my experience, it mostly wanes.

No, we can’t count on motivation to make changes, especially big ones, like going from eating donuts, to eating apple slices while watching Netflix.

Next up…


Seems like a no-brainer. This is how easy or hard it is to do the thing.

Like, have you made it super-easy to push the snooze button on my alarm?

If so, your behavior of hitting the snooze button is probably going to happen.

But, if you got an alarm without a snooze button and put it across the room, that might do the trick!

Now your ability to hit snooze just got harder.

It works the other way, too. Say you want to eat healthy snacks when you get home from work. But all you have hanging around are chips, cookies 🍪, and ice cream.🍨

Try as you might, you’ll probably end up having at least some of one or more of those.

But, if prior to coming home you’ve brainstormed some tasty and appealing (this is key 🗝️) snacks that are also healthier than the aforementioned trio, and you’ve put them front and center on the counter or in the fridge, chances are you’ll be on your way to changing that habit.



A stoplight 🟢 turns green. You go 🚘. A notification for a new email or FB post shows up. Then you check it out. Your phone rings. And so you answer.

But nothing happens without a prompt! Nothing!!

There are zillions of them each day in our lives, and most of the time, we don’t even notice.

For example, I text my husband every day between 10 and 10:30 AM to see how his morning’s going.

Often I get busy at work and the time gets away from me and suddenly it’s after 10:30!

So, I finally got the brilliant idea 📳 to set up a reminder on my phone! Now I have a prompt.

My previous prompt (if you want to call it that) was looking at the clock, seeing it was 10:22 or whatever and thinking, “crap, I need to text my husband!”

The prompt is the most important part of behavior change, because without it, the behavior won’t happen.

Examples of prompts:

  • after brushing teeth
  • when turning off the TV in the evening
  • When turning on the TV in the evening
  • after turning off your computer at the office
  • upon drinking your first cup of coffee
  • after your feet hit the floor in the morning
  • after using the restroom
  • when putting your keys on the desk

In short, anything you do with regularity can be a prompt.

Put It Together

All right, so how to put this all together in an example so you can see why habits are the key to weight loss.

You want to lose weight. As mentioned elsewhere, this is not a SMART goal. (Dr. Fogg likes to call these aspirations or outcomes, not goals. He says the word goal is too prone to misunderstanding).

So your aspiration or outcome is to lose weight. Let’s drill down a bit more to something that doesn’t include anything vague like this, AND doesn’t include a specific number such as, I want to lose 50 pounds.

Most important is to figure out why you want to lose weight. Is it to fit into certain clothes? To be more attractive? Healthier? Get off some medication?

Next, brainstorm several behaviors that could lead you in the direction of weight loss. The sky’s the limit for ideas.

Some examples:

  • Walk everyday
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables
  • Keep a food diary
  • Count calories
  • Drink more water
  • Bring lunch to work (instead of eating out)
  • Cook more meals at home
  • Get more sleep
  • Train for a marathon
  • Eat vegan

Surely there are countless others you could think of. Some might be difficult for you to do, or some may prove unreasonable.

But don’t worry about that now, you’ll refine your list later.

Organize Your List

After the general list, group your ideas into how effective or ineffective they will be at helping you realize your aspiration, and into the likelihood that you’ll actually do them consistently.

B J Fogg suggests a quadrant graph like below.

Next, you take the behaviors you’ve bainstormed and start putting them in the quadrants according to your best guess.

In other words, if you chose “walk everyday” as above, you need to decide if this is more, or less effective in helping you reach your aspiration. (I would put it in “more effective”).

Then, decide if you’re more, or less likely to actually DO this thing! If you aren’t at least an 8 on a scale of 1-10, you’re probably less likely to do it.

Then you could tweak it to make it more likely.

How about walking for 5 minutes every day? Or walking 3 days a week?

Just be sure to make the behavior something you actually want to do.

If you have to force yourself (even if you think you should do it), it probably belongs in the “less likely” quadrant.

Obviously we’re looking for things that end up in the top, right quadrant.

These are going to be your golden ticket behaviors to help you reach your outcome(s). Try to aim for 3 to 5 of them.

Make The Behaviors Simple

The final step is to make these behaviors simple and nearly automatic. You already know you’ll most likely DO them (because of the work you did above), so now you have to make the doing of them simple.

How? Stay tuned for the next post!

If you’ve gotten this far, know that this is something you can do. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how many times you think you’ve failed at weight loss and overall better health.

What matters is using those “failures” as springboards to a better way. A way that works with your brain instead of against it.

Just remember, your habits are the key to weight loss!

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  1. Wow, I love this article! I have to say this is the first post that I have ever read about habits and losing weight that just makes sense. It’s easy to tell people to change their habits and whatnot, but the motivation , ability, and prompt really help me understand what I should to do to start that. I need to order that book pronto!