Habit according to the psychologistis the process by which new behaviours become automatic. If you instinctively reach for a cigarette whenever you feel stressed out that is a habit. Similarly, if you get up by 5: am to lace up your jogging shoes and hit the road, you’ve developed a habit and new behaviours can become automatic through the process of habit formation. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns which humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways, but it is possible to form new habits through repetition. Because according to research, all habits follow a particular behavioural and neurological pattern says, New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit”- which explores the science why we do what we do.
Everyone has at least one bad habit which we wish we didn’t have but feel pessimistic about changing. Whether its common habits like tapping your feet whenever you feel anxious, chewing gum too loud, eating of junk food, oversleeping or chronic ones like smoking and abuse of drugs or alcohol that are life-threatening to your health, chronic lateness, eating unhealthy food and failing to exercise that can threaten your health or excessive spending that can jeopardize your financial stability and lead to mental health issue. Bad habits always have life-threatening consequences and can hinder our happiness, health and even social relationship. Bad habits can be broken but the key to breaking bad habits is, first, to develop some insight into their origins.
What is a Habit?
From the standpoint of psychology, the American Journal of Psychology (1903), the first English-language journal devoted primarily to experimental psychology defines a “habit, as a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience. likewise, the word web dictionary defines it as, an automatic pattern of behaviour in reaction to a specific situation; whether inherited or acquired through frequent repetition. Well, definitions are good but what’s more important is – how habit is formed.
Understanding habits; how they form and how to break them
Every habit begins through a psychological pattern scientist called “habit loop”, says Duhigg which happens to be a three-step process. First the cue or trigger, which takes the brain into an automatic mode to unfold a behaviour. Then, the routine process, which is the behaviour itself and can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain decide if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop pattern – the cue, routine and reward become more and more automatic just like putting toothpaste on your brush first thing in the morning to brush your teeth, taking your bath and dressing up. Although, according to discovery, Neuroscientists have traced these habitual behaviours to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a major role in the formation of emotions, memories and pattern but which is different from the part of the brain that is responsible for decision making. Hence, when a habit emerges, the part of your brain responsible for decision making automatically stops working over time.
The truth is that it becomes an advantage because your brain can now focus on other tasks. That’s why it’s easy — while driving, one can completely focus on something else: like having a conversation. “You can do these complex behaviours without being mentally aware of it at all,” because of the capacity of our basal ganglia to take a behaviour and convert it into an automatic routine. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – Unless you find new routines say for an old habit – the Patten will keep unfolding automatically. However, by simply understanding how habits work – learning the structure of the habit loop i.e the cue, routine and reward make it easier to control.
Though changing some bad habits say like the chronic or life-threatening ones may require professional help, but understanding the basic principle of behaviour change can provide you with a head start on the process. And with Charles Duhigg knowledge of knowing how habit is formed with Edwin W. Lutzerhow to break a habit; we can ascertain that new habit can be created, changed or ignored with some of the following steps.
Make a decision to change and believe that you can.
Let’s face it; you can only change what you decide you want to change. No doubt, many of us want to change but the problem is we simply don’t know how to do it. Change experts have emphasized the importance of commitment as the first step to change and that change occurs in stages.
The truth is if you don’t see or acknowledge a problem, you won’t work on changing your behaviour. Behaviour at times can be complex; hence to increase the probability of achieving a successful change of habit, divide a behaviour into parts and learn how to achieve each part successively. Trying to break all your bad habits at once can be overwhelming; start by breaking down those behaviours into a smaller bit and break one at a time than to rush through the process and end up getting rid of none.
The more honest you are with yourself about the nature of your bad habit, the more likely you will be to start on the path toward change. You might want to start by keeping a log of those bad habits – like how often you smoke, lie, drink to excess, late for an occasion, overeat and so on. Once you’ve decided you want to change, believe in yourself that you are able to achieve whatever it is you want to and that no one will do it for you.
Figure out the motive and what is causing your bad habit.
Finding out both the internal and external cause of bad habits will help you go a long way towards changing them. What is that situation that has led to that habit? I’m very particular about this because for you to solve anything at that, you have to understand its root cause before anything else. After you have figured out the root cause, then you can begin to strategies and take steps towards the direction. What process are you engaging on to break your bad habit?
By figuring what’s causing the bad habit, you can then decide on how to manipulate the outcome of your behaviour to your favour. Take those outcomes that are fueling the bad habits (attention, excitement, pleasure) and then substitute them with something else that will give you that same pleasure, excitement or attention. For instance, do you enjoy the attention you get from being late? Figure out other ways to be noticed. Does fried food just taste too good that you can’t give up on? Find other ways to get satisfaction from healthy eating.
Maybe you don’t see the need that your body deserves to be treated properly and you fail to engage in a good health habits, or maybe you don’t see the need to do well in life simply because you tried and failed once. Perhaps you like the attention you get when you walk late into the classroom or a meeting even though every time, you have to be briefed about the discussion notwithstanding. Some bad habits just feel good and so we keep repeating them to the point that they have become automatic. They may make our problems such as stress or anxiety temporarily go away, but does it actually solve it? Rather it builds and becomes another source of influence or motivation to keep at it.
3. Set realistic goals for yourself
Your bad habits have taken years to establish themselves. You don’t think you are just going to throw them off in an instant or with the blink of an eye. Decide on a realistic plan that will work for you but mostly based on the goals that you believe you can meet. For a start, don’t think you can go from zero days of exercise a week for instance to seven. Instead, work out a plan on when to hit the gym or jogging plan that will easily fit into your existing schedule.
Startup with fewer days then increase gradually to a reasonable point that is recommended. If it has to do with the issue of overeating, start by reducing, for instance, the size of the plate and if it’s lateness you’re dealing with, start by setting your watch maybe an hour or two to the actual time you normally would wake up to enable you to balance up with the expected time. Starting on this note is actually a great way to achieve your goals for a change.
4. Measure your progress on the go but don’t be discouraged in the process
The truth is if you’re going to reach that ultimate goal, you’ll need to know how well you’re doing on achieving those reasonable goals you’ve set to begin with. It is always important to keep a diary or journal as you progress. Researchers have found that writing out goal and keeping it and looking at it every time can help you stay on track.
Sometimes we actually do make little progress from the start but when we don’t take note or document them down, and then we don’t see any progress so we get discouraged. But if we keep even the slightest detail or record as we progress, we can definitely see that we are actually making progress. If you will agree with me that sometimes we ourselves don’t even recognize the changes but our friends or people around us does; and that sometimes is just the motivation we need that we are heading in the right direction.
5. Compare the pros and cons; the rewards with the consequences
Make a simple pros/cons list of what your habit gives you. Try to be unsparingly honest with yourself. All habits have a function. The habit of brushing your teeth every morning prevents you from visiting the dentist, the habit of checking your emails first thing at work helps you organize your day. Bad habits are no different – they too have a function. Smoking for instance to some might just be a way to pause and think, excessive drinking might just be a way you know how to be social or how to deal with a break-up pain. The question is not just a bad habit but what function it is serving you.
Here’s a pro/con list for excessive drug usage for example:
Feeling of calmness and energy from nicotine
Helps with short-term stress
Opportunity for the social ice-breaker
Helps you feel stylish
Numerous and damaging long-term health problems
Gets very addictive quickly
Can cut your life short if abused.
Try and do this with every other bad habit you have. Always compare the rewards and consequences just like it’s done in business – comparing the profit and loss and then you can decide for yourself what is best for you and what path to follow.
6. Seek additional support if you don’t seem to be making any progress in the right direction
No man is an island and one of the ways we can build that inner resilience is by reaching out for outward support. In case you are having a difficult time making these changes on your own, reach out to your friends, family or perhaps your mentors, anyone you look up to as the case may be.
Sometimes outside motivation may be more helpful than going solo. Some change-resistant habits may require psychotherapy or experts intervention. Needing help or seeking assistance, does not mean that you have failed. It just means that the change is going to require more resources than you initially anticipate.