3 Ways to Feed Good Habits and Starve the Bad

By Les McGehee, President and Master Coach, Rialto Academy

What is a habit anyway? Let’s start with the good ole Merriam-Webster dictionary.


1: a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior

2a: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary

b: Addiction

c: a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance

These “settled tendencies” and “behaviors” account for approximately half of what you do each day, positively or negatively. Your particular habits were formed either consciously or subconsciously, and after enough frequent repetition, they moved in for good.

So, what does feeding and starving have to do with anything? Here’s a Native American legend you may have heard in the Disney movie, “Tomorrowland”:

“One evening an old man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Good and bad habits are like this, too, like two wolves fighting it out for control of your behavior. And, like the wolves in the story, the one that will win is the one you feed. So, how do you feed a good habit and starve a bad one? First let’s get back to the basics. A habit comprises three parts:  

  •    The CUE that triggers it.
  •    The ROUTINE or pattern of behavior that you go into.
  •    The REWARD you receive after the behavior.

With each of these parts in mind, here are three ways to feed the habits that are serving you, while kicking the bad guys to the curb:

1.  Feed the CUE.

Your habits, whether good or bad, begin with a set of cues that signal you to go into a routine. For a good habit, you can “feed” these cues by making them more consistent, obvious, and attractive to you. Smile at these cues. Provide for them. Think fondly of them in full color and motion.

You can starve the cues for a bad habit by doing the opposite. Make them unlikely, vague, and unattractive to you. Think dismissively of them and treat them as trivial. Make it difficult for them to occur. If you think of them, think of them as a small black-and-white photo. 

2. Feed the ROUTINE.

Habits put you into a routine, or pattern of behavior. For a good habit, you can “feed” that routine by clearing obstacles from it and supporting it. You feed it by making the desirable routine easier. When you think of this routine, think fondly of it in full color and motion.

You can starve the routine for a bad habit by doing the opposite. Put up obstacles for that routine. Make it more unlikely and more difficult. If you think of the bad routine, think of it as a black-and-white thumbnail image.

3. Feed the REWARD.

Habits have a reward that you learn to crave and that helps to cement the habit into your life. For a good habit, you can “feed” the reward by making it even cooler for you. You can add sensations to it, like taking a deep breath and patting yourself on the back while feeling the reward. Think about the reward and how satisfying it is. Think fondly of it in full color and motion. Crave it. It’s a great feeling, that simple reward.

You can starve the reward for a bad habit by doing the opposite. Diminish the value of the reward or do away with it altogether. Dismantle, hide, reject, or prevent the reward. Think of the reward dismissively if you think of it at all. If you picture the reward, think of it in a small black-and-white photo. Have a little disdain for that stupid old reward!

You could call this “the habit habit.” It’s the habit of growing your good habits and diminishing your bad habits. In Rialto Academy’s powerful course, “Unlock Your Personal Productivity Through Habits,” we point out that there are only a few ways to change your habits. A habit can be reinforced or discouraged. A habit can be improved or substituted. Any way you look at it, you have to take actions that feed or grow your good habits and take other actions that starve or diminish your bad habits.

And don’t just put bad habits on a diet—starve them! Bad habits have incredible power to feed themselves. For example, you might have a bad habit that has the cue of “I feel sad.” And your routine might be to “go eat junk food.” And the reward might be “I feel better while eating junk food.” But soon your feelings might turn to sadness again because you ate junk food, and so the cue of “I feel sad” gets triggered again. The bad habit was feeding itself!

Get the most out of what you do by feeding the habits that support your success and starving the habits that hold you back. And stick with it: You deserve your full-color future.

Unlock Your Personal Productivity Through Habits starts February 26. Get more information and register here.