Around 40-45% of the actions we take throughout the day are habits. The way we eat, the way we dress, how we sit, our journey to work. Forming habits is our brain’s way of putting our daily routines into auto-pilot so it doesn’t have to concentrate so hard.
Once we make something a habit it becomes effortless. This is positive as it means we can become self-disciplined and productive in anything we choose to focus on. Maintaining a habit is easy but changing an existing habit can be tough. Unless we know how habits work.
The Habit Loop
A Habit has 3 components, known as the habit loop.
1. The Cue
The trigger for the behaviour to start. It could be a person, a location, the time of day, boredom, stress, tiredness, etc
2. The Routine
This is the behaviour itself, such as smoking, drinking, binge eating, biting our nails, overexposure to social media or television.
3. The Reward
How the behaviour makes us feel. For example, relaxed, talkative, confident, at ease.
In order to change a bad habit the Cue and Reward can remain but we need change the Routine.
The first step is to identify the trigger. By identifying the problem you have already made the first step to eradicate the habit. Keeping a habit diary can help to highlight when you are vulnerable. Write down how you are feeling at the time. Do you want that chocolate muffin because you are hungry or are you just looking for a temporary distraction from work?
Once you recognise the moments of weakness it’s then time to replace the routine with an alternative. Swap the sugary latte for green tea, go for a walk if you are craving a cigarette, hit the gym instead of drinking at lunch or after work.
During this initial phase you will encounter external and internal resistance. External from the people around you and internal from the voice in your head. This is where willpower is required. Willpower is like a muscle, you can train it to be stronger.
Once you learn to stand up for yourself and say no, your willpower will increase and the task at hand will get easier each day that goes by. One point to remember, just like a muscle your willpower can also get tired, so you may find it easier to focus on eradicating one bad habit at a time.
The Feel Good Factor
When you are making headway it’s important to celebrate your achievements. This reinforces the reward component and will aid adherence to the new habit. We are much more likely to continue to do something that makes us feel good so reward yourself in a healthy, non-damaging way, which encourages further progress.
The new habit may be enough reward in itself, i.e the release of endorphins from exercising or seeing your waist size decrease, but it’s also good to pat yourself on the back every now and again and treat yourself by eating out, seeing a movie, a spa day etc.
Just ensure the reward is in line with your effort. Ten press ups in the morning doesn’t mean you can spend the whole evening in the pub.
Dealing With Setbacks
Nobody is perfect and we all have moments of weakness. You may not be able to grasp your new habit at the first attempt but if you do break the routine it doesn’t mean you have failed. It is all about perspective.
Don’t say ‘I didn’t smoke for 30 days but I gave in and had 2 cigarettes on Saturday night’. Instead say ‘I used to smoke 5 a day but I’ve only had 2 cigarettes in the last month’. The latter is positive and suggests progress, a stepping stone toward your ultimate goal.
Obviously some habits are harder to break than others. One way to ensure you stay on track is with the help of others. Inform friends of your goal and ask them to support and encourage you. Find someone who wants to break the same habit with you and answer to each other.
Having someone to hold you accountable will reinforce the belief that you can get to where you want to be.
Aristotle: ”We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
If you would like to learn more on this subject please check out the excellent book The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
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