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Habits: Replacing The Bad With The Good
What Are Habits?
Habits are the brain’s way of engaging autopilot so that we don’t have to consciously process all the amazing quantity of information it is receiving. We live in the information age but our brain always has done; dealing with the constant flow of stimuli it gets when we are conscious has been a full-time job for it since we were conceived.
Some of this is simply about keeping our body functioning properly but a lot of habits are to do with how we behave. Unless we live in a solitary world with no interaction with the rest of the world, or the people therein, we will always be confronted by situations where we must make choices. Some will be simple, some more complex. Many of them require no thought though since our brain is already pre-programmed to act in a helpful way. We have behaved well or inappropriately in the past and our brain has received feedback (it went well, do that again; alternatively that was rubbish do something different). Consequently our head is full of ways of dealing with situations that we thoughtlessly employ to good effect.
Some of these habits we will have deliberately developed – any kind of learning for things we do regularly will eventually become habit. How often do you stop to think how to tie your laces these days, or parallel park your car? You might put in extra thought-effort if you want either of these to produce a particularly neat result but the actions themselves should come automatically. This is good because it does allow your brain to focus on other details instead.
Of the habits within us, some came without our conscious choice. This does not make them wrong. For example, our nose’s sneeze response to pepper, or our stomach vomiting out ‘poisons’, are good habits to rid the body of things that won’t help. Likewise, the decision to put on one shoe before the other, cross your arms left-over-right (or vice versa) or to push with your calf when stepping forwards are all things you ‘just do’.
Many habits are less desirable though. However many of them can be changed, however they were formed.
This is obviously a basic belief, without which you need read no further. If habits can’t be changed then we could never become better; people would never give up smoking, violent offenders could never be rehabilitated and the whole personal development industry would grind to an abrupt halt! Whilst some of these outcomes might be more desirable for you than others, it should be easy to accept that people’s habits can be changed. The key to your success though is to believe that you can change your habits.
What is a habit though? A dictionary definition is, ‘a tendency or disposition to act in a particular way’ but I prefer a psychological definition I came across which said a habit is ‘a learned behavioural response that has become associated with a particular situation, especially one frequently repeated’. This to me is preferable because it brings in the idea of a habit being associated with a particular trigger.
Put basically, a habit is the routine you perform after you have noticed a cue, in order to acquire a reward. It might be that a driver in front of you slamming on their brakes triggers an invective-laden shout which makes you feel self-righteous and better than them. Alternatively, feeling the first spots of rain might make you put up your umbrella in order to keep your hair dry.
Breaking Bad Habits
The bad news first is that habits cannot be eradicated. They can be changed though, and the change will overwrite the new to the point where, although your brain has the same old urges, your self-discipline allows the more recently formed to take precedence.
You need therefore to find a new routine to put in place when you notice the cue. It is important to ensure that you are still rewarded in the same way as before. You will then get the same sense of satisfaction and your brain will be fooled into thinking that everything has carried on as before.
Forming New Habits
Charles Duhigg’s book on the power of habits gives 4 easy(ish) steps to breaking habits: identify it, experiment with rewards, isolate the cue and then have a plan.
What is that you currently do that you would rather avoid? What have you noticed in your life that is unnecessary, a waste of time or actively bad for you? For me it was the need to wander to the biscuit tin every hour or so when I was working at home. For you it might be drumming your hands in meetings, chewing the end of your pen or never putting the top back on the toothpaste. Whatever it is, knowing what you do is the start.
It might be that you already have a good idea why you carry out your habit. If not, start by brainstorming possible benefits you might gain from your habit – remember that for your brain to keep urging you to do something it must know that you are getting something from this activity.
The next time you notice the urge to carry out the routine, do something different that might help to provide one of the possible rewards you might be aiming to provide for yourself. It could be anything, so long as it is not what you would normally have done. For example you could tap your feet instead of drumming your hands, massage your scalp, cross your legs, stand up and turn around. The whole idea is to find something that still gives the reward you were craving when the urge kicked in.
For me I tried making a coffee instead of eating but that didn’t work. I still had the urge to go for a biscuit. I walked around the house to distract myself but that was similarly futile. In the end I discovered that eating something was the only way to satisfy me, but it didn’t matter what I ate so I settled on nuts.
One way Duhigg suggests, to work out what reward you need to satisfy you, is to make a few notes each time you do something different. After you have tried the experimental new routine, write three words or phrases down – nothing specific necessarily, just the first things that come to mind. It might be about your feelings or not. However, the moment of awareness does tend to focus you, plus it helps you recall your feelings later. Then set an alarm for 15 minutes; when it rings, ask yourself if the urge has been satisfied. If it has, what does this new routine also achieve for you, in common with the old habit? Obviously if you still have the urge then you will need to find a different alternative routine to provide the required reward. For me I finally nailed it down as something to do with the joy of ‘illicit snacking’ – being able to take advantage of being at home for work. Only eating something met that ‘need’.
If you can work out what triggers the urge then you can start to make a plan. It will probably come from one of five areas: time, location, emotional state, other people or a preceding action. To isolate the cue, ask yourself a set of questions whenever you get the urge, along the lines of the five themes, and note the answers. After a while you should start to notice a common thread in answers to one of the questions e.g. it happens around the same time each day or in the same place, in response to a particular feeling or person or following a specific action by yourself or someone else. With me and the biscuits, I realised it happened every time I got up from my desk for any reason. I would amble into the kitchen and open the biscuit tin even if I my original plan had been to collect something from the bookshelf for example.
Once you have looked at the cue, the routine and the reward then you can make a plan; expect the cue and when you get it recognise the urge and follow it by completing your new routine. The first time you do this will take mental effort to deliberately follow the plan. In fact for the first few times it will need you to be very focussed. Having some kind of reminder will help you to recognise the cue instantly. If the cue is a time then you can simply set an alarm, or if location is key then a picture or sign in that place will jog your memory. If the cue comes from any of the other three areas then it will not be as simple but a life coach can help you associate the idea of your new with a memory of the cue.
One other alternative would be to disrupt the cue as you form a new habit. For example if your habit is associated with place then you could go somewhere else to get started. The suggestion is that if you want to give up smoking and you always do it in the office and at home then quit on holiday. Looking back I can see how this unintentionally worked for me nibbling at my fingernails, something I often did when driving long distances. I took a decision to stop one day early in a two week holiday. I didn’t drive for a fortnight and by the time I went home I was well on the way to cementing the new habit. I have barely looked back since then.
Making Them Stick
There are a few things that will help you make the new habit stick in the longer term.
Patience and Perseverance
It will not happen overnight and so you need some patience. There is a popularly held myth that if you carry on religiously for 21 days then that will be enough. It seems this originated from early plastic surgery patients who took 3 weeks to recognise their new faces. More recent research from UCL suggests that it will take around 66 days. Read about it on their website at http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/hbrc/2012/06/29/busting-the-21-days-habit-formation-myth/
During this time it is possible, though not guaranteed, that you might fail, miss a day, or forget. If this does happen you have a choice to either berate yourself for having fallen off the wagon or congratulate yourself for having lasted this long. As soon as you can, go back to your new habit, maybe reverting to the reminders you had in the early days to ensure it happens the way you wanted.
If you want the change badly enough though you will stick to your plan and persevere through the harder days until the habit is ingrained, at which point persevering will be unnecessary – it will be habitual!
You need to believe that change is possible and that it is possible for you. It seems that it isn’t necessary to believe in God or some other higher power but belief in the possibility of change is vital. Researchers have also discovered that within a group setting this belief is strengthened, even if that group is small. As you work on changing your habit, who will you share that with; who could support you as you develop yourself?
If you can turn your need to be rewarded into a craving, akin to an addiction maybe, then you are most likely to see the transformation that you desire. It’s easy to see how this works with narcotics but it is also possible with more benign habits. When the cue triggers not only the routine but also the craving for the reward then you will be highly motivated to ensure that the routine takes place faultlessly.
Getting help from a friend or family member is always good whenever you want to develop yourself. They can encourage you, maybe put things in place around the edges that help and maybe most importantly, will keep asking how you are getting on. Whilst it might grate occasionally, if someone external is providing a constant reminder of your goal then you will keep on going.
If you haven’t got someone you want to confide in at home then it is worth considering employing a coach to help you through this stage of your growth – it’s what they specialise in and they can provide helpful tips and suggestions that make it all work well.
Changes can and must be made to our habits. By recognising them, realising what reward we are seeking and isolating what starts the process each time, we can make a plan to do something different. When this kicks in each time the urge takes us, we can still gain our rewards but through doing something which is more acceptable.
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