How to break a bad habit (or start a new one)

Habits are part of the functionality of our brain. They have a purpose. That purpose is to make decisions with less effort and energy. When you get ready for work, you don’t constantly have to plan each day over and over — it’s become a habit. It’s efficient and easy. Think of a time when your routine has been disrupted. The effort seems to increase exponentially, right? Do you perhaps forget things you wouldn’t normally? Bad habits are those which we would consider as detrimental to our overall well being or productivity. Does 2 hours of Netflix to ‘wind down’ sound familiar, anyone? See if you can take some time right now to think of 2 bad habits and 2 good habits currently present in your life. I find that it’s actually much harder to think of the good ones. So, how do we break the cycle?

Step 1. Destress

Generally, our bad habits will manifest during periods of high stress. Maybe they’re occupational, maybe they’ve got to do with relationships, but whatever the case, these high stress moments will see our bad habits making themselves known. The problem here is that we often try to change the habit at the point of stress itself, which is the hardest time to do so. Not only that, we don’t end up replacing it with anything. If you want to quit smoking, what else will you do on your break at work? What do you do instead of Netflix — just sit quietly on the couch for an hour staring into space? No, we need something else. The problem is that it’s very difficult to integrate a new behaviour under stress. The best option is to practice the new behaviour when you’re feeling calm. Create a new cue, act, reward pattern so that your brain establishes the value of that behaviour, thus making you more likely to seek it in times of stress.

Step 2. Know your cues.

Habits always are always formed with the same pattern: cue, behaviour, reward. Knowing what cue will trigger your bad behaviour is critical to changing it. If you know that walking past a specific shop will make you want to walk in and by a bucketful of fried chicken you don’t need, then the trick here is not to try and stop buying the chicken but to just change your walking route. We are action-oriented creatures, meaning if you say to yourself ‘stop eating fried chicken’, your brain still hears ‘fried chicken’ whereas if you say, ‘walk past the river’ your brain will accept it much more readily.

Step 3. Make it worthwhile

You have to be able to explain, understand, and value the reason for the change. This seems logical, but is often a lot harder than people realise. Take exercise for example. Usually, our reasoning behind this is a social pressure, a lack of confidence, or discomfort in ourselves. These things are very difficult to articulate and understand. Not only that, but you won’t feel the reward in those areas until much further down the track — indeed, exercise as a habit is hard. If we examine the trend in fitness these days though, there’s an obvious pattern. It’s all about the community. People are trying to build social collectives around physical activity. This is a great thing. Humans are inherently social creatures, and thus being a part of a group of having a strong sense of belonging is a very powerful motivator. So, my advice to you is to dig deep to find the reasons behind your habits and create powerful motives to be more healthful.

Step 4. Be patient

You may have heard that it takes 30 days to make a habit. This comes from a study looking at that question exactly: how many days did it take people on average to form a habit? Here’s the scoop. In that study, the durations ranged ranged from 17 days all the way to 257 days! The point is that we’re all different. If you relapse, that’s fine. It’s normal. Revisit point 3, and reaffirm the value of those habits you want to make or why you want to break them. Touch base with a friend or loved one who can help remind you of these things if your reasoning seems lost. Studio 99 is full of like-minded people with wonderful health and fitness stories. Perhaps there’s an opportunity there to make some new habits or break some old ones with a bit of support!

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