Making – and Breaking – Habits

4 min read  |  August 30, 2021  | 
Disponible en Español |

The past 18 months have wreaked havoc on our routines. Necessary precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 forced us to change how we live. Now, as we tiptoe back into a new normal, the time may be right to break bad habits and create new ones.

Most of us usually leave such life-changing commitments for special dates. Hence, the long history of New Year’s resolutions. Don’t wait on the calendar, though, to make the changes you want.

“Whatever demarcation works with your life is the best time, not just some designated day on the calendar,” says Barbara Coffey, M.D., M.S., child and adult psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System.

Certain landmarks are universal, but they may not be right for you.

“You should ask yourself, ‘When will I most likely succeed?’”

In fact, Dr. Coffey says a year provides many good “demarcations” for a reset. It can be a birthday or a move across town, even a new job. For many, the end of summer— with schools and colleges starting – provides that perfect opportunity. This year a return to the office may add motivation as well.

Picking the right time isn’t the only challenge if you want to make changes, however. Dr. Coffey suggests you also look at what – and who – might be helpful on the journey. Over the years, the study of how we form habits has given behavioral experts the knowledge to help others with their resolutions. Such insight can mean the difference between quitting and pushing forward to achieve the goal.

Of course, some bad habits are more difficult to drop than others, just as some good ones can prove harder to adopt. It also takes time for a new behavior to stick. Losing 30 pounds won’t happen in a month, nor will the practice of daily exercise develop in a week. Nevertheless, Dr. Coffey suggests first tackling the habit that is the easiest to drop or to acquire.

“I’m a big believer in the low-hanging fruit concept,” she says.

“It’s best to start with the least problematic habit. Feeling successful makes all the difference in the world. Confidence comes from a feeling of competence.”

Here are her other suggestions:

  • Take a personal inventory. Know your why. Give yourself realistic goals and prioritize the “easy” ones.
  • Break a goal into small steps. In other words, you shouldn’t expect to run a mile your first morning out, but you can start by running a block and slowly build up.
  • Partner with a buddy. Friends can hold each other accountable while also providing support.
  • Seek help. This may come in several forms. There are support groups and apps that provide encouragement, but that isn’t always enough. In the case of addiction, “you need professional help,” Dr. Coffey explains.
  • “Quitting is not a matter of motivation.”

There are also smaller habits – biting nails, picking your skin, and other repetitive behaviors – that might benefit from expert support.

  • Avoid triggers. For example, if you want to quit smoking, it’s not a good idea to hang around smokers. Some situations are unavoidable, of course, so rehearse what to do when facing temptation. Instead of lighting up, you can take a walk or ask for a cup of coffee.
  • Reward yourself — but not with the behavior you want to stop. What’s more, the reward should be relatively immediate. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s key to reinforcing behaviors, works in seconds but developing good habits takes months. A quick prize or celebration will empower you to continue.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Everyone falls off the wagon at some point. Work hard on being consistent and re-commit after the slip-up.

“You have to accept that you might stumble,” Dr. Coffey says, “but don’t be hard on yourself. This is when practice comes in handy. Keep at it.”

Ana Veciana Suarez

Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist

Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: behavioral medicine, Dr. Barbara Coffey, habit making

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