We all have bad habits, and they can be many and varied. They can be as big as poor time management which can impact your productivity, or as small as nail biting which drives your loved ones crazy! You might self-sabotage, such as tucking into that tub of ice-cream even if you’ve vowed to eat better or checking your phone during face-to-face conversations which can cause hurt feelings.
It’s of course unrealistic to be perfect, but you can part company with the habits which are not having a positive impact on your life.
How habits are formed
It’s estimated that 40% of our activities are performed daily in the same situations.i It can be hard to trace back how habits (good and bad) were formed but they served a purpose at some stage in our lives. Perhaps you took up smoking to fit in or deal with stress, or learned to self-soothe with sugary treats.
A bad habit for one person isn’t necessarily a bad habit for someone else. Having a glass or two during wine o’clock might be problematic for someone, but a welcome treat for another.
Why habits are hard to break
Habits become deeply wired over time and often reward us in some way thanks to our brain chemistry. However we don’t have to remain at the mercy of them.
As the common failure of our New Year’s resolutions show, it’s hard to break habits and/or form new ones. Fortunately there has been significant research into how habits are formed, which can help when it comes to breaking our less desired habits.
Leveraging the habit loop
All habits can be broken down into three main components; first comes the cue or trigger which could be in your internal or external environment; then the action (good or bad); and lastly the reward, where your brain receives the positive feedback for your action.ii
Appreciating how habits are formed and maintained will enable you to consciously adjust your behaviour, intercepting the habit loop and making your desired behaviours finally stick.
Firstly, create an environment that reminds and encourages you to take action. This could be having your clothes set out for your early morning workout, or scheduling time and moving to a separate space to allow for deep thinking work.
Next identify your current external and your internal cues that trigger your behaviour and set up a process for more productive response, removing any barriers to your success. Are you prone to the 3pm afternoon slump? Take a walk or have some healthy snacks at hand to save you from that sugary snack.
Creating a positive feedback loop for success
Ever wondered why your most addictive habits are often the easiest to adopt and the hardest to kick? These habits, while they may not have a positive impact on your health and wellbeing, have inbuilt reward systems which release a cocktail of positive chemicals in your brain including dopamine, encouraging you to continue your new found habit.
While not all habits have a natural inbuilt reward system, you can create a positive feedback loop to stimulate your brain and embed a new habit, particularly when you are just getting started. For example, studies have shown that a small amount of dark chocolate after a workout can stimulate the same chemicals that will eventually be released by the workout itself.iii Creating an immediate reward to spur you on.
…and pace yourself
It takes time to break habits and form new ones – on average, over two months.iv Be patient with yourself and realistic with what you can achieve. If you do fall back into your old ways, don’t be too hard on yourself, most people fail multiple times before they make it work. Treat yourself with compassion and persevere. It will be worth the effort to dump those habits that just aren’t working for you anymore.