How to Beat Bad Habits and Stick at Good Ones

As the saying goes, ‘we are creatures of habit’. But all too often people become slaves to their habits. The drive through burger on the way to work, the afternoon beer as you walk through the door, checking emails or social media every time we get a notification. Everyone knows these aren’t productive activities, but it doesn’t take many repetitions of the same activity to become stuck in it. The same also goes, however, for productive activities. As hard as it is to get out of bed for those first few morning runs, people who do this every day will tell you after a while they don’t even think about it. It’s part of their routine like taking a shower or brushing their teeth.

How does this happen?

Studies have demonstrated that our brains work less hard once something becomes a habit. We’re all familiar with the feeling of having driven somewhere we drive all the time, like work, with something on our mind and not actually remembering how we got there. It becomes an automatic process for our brain. This happens because our brains are essentially lazy, well, let’s say efficient, and are constantly looking for ways to expend less effort. Our brains will try to ‘chunk’ any routine into a habit so that doing that series of activities becomes automatic. The more routine we have in our lives, the less our brain needs to work. It’s thanks to this marvellous process that we have evolved to invent aeroplanes and life-saving medications. If our brain was being used up just concentrating on walking or feeding ourselves then none of this would be possible.

Neurological activity graphs of mice undertaking habitual routines show that brain activity spikes as they’re entering a habit. This happens because the brain is determining if this is the beginning of a familiar routine and if it is, it can allow the automatic process to take over. In other words, the brain looks out for a trigger to signal the beginning of a routine. When driving to work it may be as simple as picking up the car keys. On a work day it could be the alarm going off that triggers the beginning of the morning routine of shower, get dressed, have breakfast and leave for work. The other essential part of the habit, however, is the reward. Our brains are only interested in storing routines for which there is a reward at the end. It’s interesting how basic some of the rewards can be – when we drive to work the reward is simply arriving at our destination incident-free. If you think about the habits you have (of which you’ll probably be surprised at how many there are!) they will all involve some sort of reward. The reward for checking our devices for notifications is often just a welcome distraction from whatever else we’re trying to focus on.

These habits make it much easier for us to focus on things other than the mundane motions of life, but it also means that decision making isn’t happening during the sequence. If we have no set routine for dinner, thinking about what to have requires a decision-making process, of which the health benefits or detriments may play into. But if stopping for a burger on our way home every night has become a habit that decision-making process no longer comes into it and it’s very hard for us to mentally overcome habit. We must work very hard at overrule the automatic process and even if we manage to achieve this, we can never fully extinguish the habit. You may decide to drive a different way home in order to avoid the automatic routine and do this successfully for 6 months, but if one day you then drive the old way, the habit will be there waiting for you to let it take over. Unfortunately, the ‘cue’ in this instance may very well be seeing the establishment you usually buy the burger from, and given these places are everywhere these days and all look the same, therefore representing the trigger, it can be difficult to avoid.

So, how do we beat these habits?

Essentially, we need to create new ones that overpower the old ones. The good news is that once the new, good habits are embedded, they’re just as automatic as the old bad ones we had to fight so hard to get rid of.

The most important step is to identify the triggers and the rewards. Once you identify these it gives your conscious brain visibility on what is setting off the habit and how you are rewarding your brain for initiating the routine. For example, if you just decide to go for a run every day, ‘when you get a chance’, how likely do you think it is that you take that run? It’s very easy to put it off because there are no triggers. But if you decide to do it as soon as you wake up, or as soon as you get home there is a natural trigger or cue, and once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes a habit, particularly if you choose to pair it with a reward such as relaxing afterwards or dessert.

The final part of the habit loop is craving. What’s interesting about habits is that once they become ingrained, you begin experiencing the positive effect of the reward when you’re exposed to the trigger. For example, you put your running shoes on, which is the trigger for going for a run. When you start running the endorphins kick in, which elicits a pleasure response in your brain. After a while your brain will begin to experience the same positive feeling it gets from the endorphins just from putting your running shoes on. But it’s an anticipatory feeling. A craving. This is how habits form. The trigger, putting your shoes on, is easy enough and when you start craving the reward it will be easy to follow through with the run. This is why the reward is so important as the reward and trigger are literally entwined.

To extinguish bad habits, you need to find a way to remove the trigger or the reward, or both, as without each other the craving cannot occur and the habit no longer serves a purpose to our brains. Similarly, to instil a new habit, ensure you have a clear trigger at the beginning of the routine, and that there is a reward for completing it, and that this reward and trigger are consistently paired so that before long you’re craving the routine and it becomes a habit as easy as regularly brushing your teeth.

If you need help in eliminating poor habits or creating good ones, get in touch with me today to find out how I can help.

Source: Duhigg., C. (2013). The Power of Habit.

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