How many times did you want to quit smoking, start exercising or eat healthier? How many times have you started such a change and then gave up after a while?
People often want to change certain things in their lives or introduce new, healthy habits. Just as often, however, people give up. They give up for different reasons, but the key one is that they have been developing the existing habit for years and now, all of a sudden, they want to get rid of it.
What are habits anyway? Those are small decisions we make and actions we take on a daily basis. At one point, we made a conscious decision about doing something in a certain way. Over time, we start making that decision less consciously until things start happening automatically. Research says that habits make 40% of our behavior every day so basically, we spend 40% of our time on autopilot and do things without much thinking. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but the problem comes up when we create bad habits like smoking when under stress, skipping breakfast, checking social media as soon as we turn on the computer, etc.
It is important to understand that all habits, good and bad, have a reason. Even some seemingly bad habits satisfy some of our needs and are good for us up to a certain point. That is why it is difficult to get rid of a once adopted habit. More precisely, it is almost impossible to eliminate a habit, but it is possible to replace it with a different, better one.
In fact, there is a so-called habit loop in our brain and it happens automatically. At first, there is some kind of a sign or a trigger that starts a pattern (e.g. a stressful situation). After that comes routine, i.e. the behavior or action we take (e.g. taking a break and lighting a cigarette). Finally, that action leads to a reward (e.g. calming down and relaxing).
How to change an unwanted habit?
Step 1 – Identify the routine
Routine, the behavior you want to change, is the most obvious aspect. Become aware of the specific behavior you want to change.
Step 2 – Experiment with rewards
Rewards are very important because they satisfy different needs that often affect our behavior without our knowledge. In order to determine which habit satisfies which need, you can try out different rewards and see how they affect you, i.e whether the need has been satisfied or not.
Step 3 – Find out the cue or the trigger
Finding the trigger amid a large number of information and events around us can be challenging. The research shows that most signs belong to one of five categories – location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediate action preceding the sign. Therefore, when you find yourselves starting a habit you want to change, ask yourselves:
- Where am I?
- What time is it?
- How is my emotional right now?
- Who else is with me or around me?
- What is the last thing I did?
Try this in several different situations until you start seeing a pattern and figure out which exact sign is triggering your habit.
Step 4 – Make a plan
You can start changing the habit once you have discovered the reward (i.e. the need you are satisfying), the sign triggering the behavior, and the behavior itself you want to change. On some occasions, you can control the signs (e.g. put your running shoes on a visible spot) or you can choose a different behavior to satisfy an existing need (e.g. get some fresh air and take a walk when you feel stressed instead of having a cigarette). Making a good plan in advance is important. Otherwise, you will be on autopilot in a second and you will do exactly what you do not want to do.
Changing habits requires time and effort, but, most of all, it requires persistence. Changing a habit that you have been (unconsciously) creating for years is not easy. It is possible you might make a “mistake” more than once, but if you do not give up, we are sure you will succeed in the end