how to break unhealthy habits
Habits are at the core of everything we do.
The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, becoming more productive is understanding how habits work.
Read on to find out how to change your life for the better.
HOW HABITS WORK
We truly are creatures of habit.
In fact, according to a study from Duke University in 2006 more than 40% of our daily actions are not actual decisions; they are habits.
Your brain is the most efficient processor on the planet and habits are a way for your brain to save energy.
We have the ability to operate on automatic pilot, performing complex behaviours without any conscious thought at all.
In many cases, these habits are useful.
We don’t need to decide every day how to put toothpaste on our toothbrush, and this allows us to save mental energy.
However not all habits are created equal.
Some habits are much more complex.
They can emerge without our permission and cause us trouble.
THE HABIT LOOP
In the 1990s, researchers at MIT discovered a neurological loop at the core of every habit.
This loop consists of three parts and all habits, no matter how large or small, have the following three components:
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic.
The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation emerges.
Your brain begins to crave the reward, and eventually a habit is born.
When a habit emerges, your brain stops participating fully in decision making, and the pattern then unfolds automatically.
THE CRAVING BRAIN
Craving is what makes cues and rewards work.
As we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brain.
This craving, or the anticipation of the reward, powers the habit loop.
There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat, but once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start
anticipating the sugar high.
Our brains will push us toward the box.
Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.
HOW TO CHANGE A HABIT
Even though habits are automatic, and to some extent unconscious actions, it is possible to change them.
The trick to changing a habit, or forming a new habit, is to switch the routine.
You can transform any behaviour if you keep the same old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.
Let’s use a coffee addiction as an example.
If you’re trying to get off caffeine, simply switch to decaf.
You will still have the entire experience from A to Z, but you’ll be drinking decaf instead.
By using the same cue and providing the same reward, you can shift the routine of drinking caffeine and change the habit.
Once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR HABIT
Simply understanding how habits work make them much easier to control.
To understand your own habits, you need to learn to observe the components of your loops.
Once you have identified the cue and reward of a particular behaviour, you can look for ways to replace the bad habit with a healthier routine.
STEP ONE: IDENTIFY THE ROUTINE
The first step is to identify the routine.
The routine is the most obvious aspect:
It’s the behaviour you want to change.
STEP TWO: EXPERIMENT WITH REWARDS
Rewards are powerful.
They satisfy our cravings.
But what cravings drive our particular habit?
Are you really craving that box of biscuits, or is it a break from work?
If it’s the biscuits, is it because you are hungry? ( In which case, an apple would work just as well).
Or is it just an excuse to take a break from work and socialise?
If so, chatting with your colleague for a few minutes may satisfy the urge.
It is useful to experiment with different rewards.
As you test them, write down your thoughts, emotions, feelings and look for patterns.
This will help you to isolate what you are actually craving.
This in turn will help you to change your habit.
STEP THREE: ISOLATE THE CUE
The next step is to identify the cue.
This is the most tricky part.
It can be hard to spot a single cue that leads to a particular behaviour.
Instead, try to identify categories of behaviours.
Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
STEP FOUR: HAVE A PLAN
Now that you identified all elements of your habit loop, you can start to shift the behaviour.
You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behaviour that delivers the reward you are craving.
Example: Mary had a biscuit habit.
She studied her biscuit habit.
She discovered that her cue was the time of roughly 3:30pm.
Her routine was to go to the cafe, buy a biscuit, and chat with friends.
The reward, she discovered, was not the junk food itself, but the opportunity to socialise.
Thus, she created a plan for working around her habit:
She set an alarm clock on her watch for 3:30, and every day, at that time, she walked to a friend’s desk and talked for 10 minutes.
After a few weeks of paying careful attention to her new routine, she now does it unconsciously, as a habit.
Just one that’s healthier for her.
IT CAN BE HARD
Changing habits can difficult.
Sometimes change takes a long time and may require repeated experiments and failures.
This framework is a place to start.
Once you understand how a habit operates, you gain power over it.
And then you’re on your way.
Many of my clients have some unhealthy habits that inevitably have caused to them to put on weight and caused their health to suffer as a result.
Part of what I do with my clients is study these habits and come up with a plan to help them combat them.
Try to replace an unhealthy habit with another (healthy) habit.
Have you got any habits that you can’t overcome?
Let me know.
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