Breaking bad habits

Today we look at how to break bad habits. “Bad” of course is subjective and value laden. Perhaps we should say, how to eliminate habitual behaviours which no longer serve a positive influence on you.

See previous posts in this month’s blog topic The Power of Habits – What is a Habit? and The Neuroscience of Habits.

So, what is the solution to habits you don’t want any more? Well it is about replacing an old habit with a behaviour that better serves your goals. It goes hand in hand with the replacement behaviour, otherwise you are relying on motivation which will eventually run out. The brain loves habitual behaviours because they are energy efficient, whereas keeping motivation up is very taxing for the brain.

Here are six things crucial to kicking old habits:

  1. Understand – You need to understand what the bad habit is giving you so that you can work on the source of the problem. Habits are not always what they seem on the surface. The behaviour often relates to how you deal with an emotion such as disappointment, rejection, fear. So try to understand why your brain is programmed to perform this habit. Often it is not about what you do, but that you have some unhelpful thoughts or emotions driving the action. Swapping the action won’t help as you need to find an alternative solution to the underlying issue.
  2. Substitute – Don’t think of it as eliminating an old habit but reprogramming your brain to a new better option.
  3. Don’t think about the old habit  – you want to strengthen the neural pathway to your new habit and weaken the one to your existing habit. You want your brain to start to default to the new one. Check out Neuroplasticity. You can work on these neural pathways with both your thoughts and actions. Doing the old habit will clearly keep the pathway active, but so will thinking about doing the old habit. If you are performing your new habit but spending all day thinking about the old option, you are going to struggle to re-wire your brain. You are sabotaging your efforts to strengthen the new pathway by dwelling on the old pathway.
  4. Stick with it – Give it three weeks initially, and be motivated and consistent. It takes time to build new defaults in your mind. Then keep monitoring it for a couple of months. After that, it should get a lot easier.
  5. Size the change appropriately – if it really is a struggle or you can’t keep it up for three weeks then perhaps you are trying to change too much at once. Find smaller goals, break the habit into smaller chunks and work on it a bit at a time.
  6. Practice the skill – if it still is a real struggle, then practice the skill of changing habits on another part of your life. This takes all the pressure off the thing you are trying to change and you can just concentrate on developing the skill of habit changing. This helps if you have attached strong feelings to the habit or haven’t succeeded in changing it in the past. Instead work on changing some little aspect of daily life which does not really matter – for example make yourself walk a different way to work for three weeks. There is no “baggage” and you can just build some confidence in how your brain can adapt.
  7. Look after your brain – while you are switching you don’t want to tax your brain in other ways. If it gets too overwhelmed then it reverts to old habits as operating on these “defaults” take much less energy. So get enough sleep, eat right, be social and don’t start a bunch of other new things at the same time.

For more resources on Habits, see our Pinterest board.

Join us next week for the last post on Habits – we look at forming good habits. To subscribe click here.

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