Habits develop when a behaviour is repeated enough times that a pathway in the brain is formed to automate the behaviour. This means we no longer have to consciously think about the behaviour – it just happens.
Like when you put your seatbelt on when you get in a car, you don’t think about what you have to do. You just do it.
The same thing can happen with food and it could be destroying your chances of losing weight and having more energy.
There are two different behaviours – goal-directed and habit-directed.
Goal-directed behaviours are when you have something in mind that you’d like to happen. For example, you think about having a cup of tea when you get in from work, you desire the tea and you take deliberate steps to obtain it. The activity of making a cup of tea was goal-directed, the goal being to have tea.
Here is the thing, If you do this often enough, then the mental process changes.
The brain will adapt so that it doesn’t have to use so much thinking power to do things that happen frequently and can be done automatically. So if you have a cup of tea every day when you get home, this behaviour becomes habit driven.
It becomes less deliberate and more repetitive. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about a cup of tea when you get home, your brain has been programmed that getting home means time for tea, and you’ll put the kettle on without making that conscious decision to do so.
Now the behaviour has become automatic, and it will take a conscious effort to change.
These patterns happen all day, every day. Some are useful – being able to drive to work while thinking about something else (think about how much you have to concentrate on driving when you don’t know the way somewhere). Brushing your teeth without needing a reminder is another useful habit.
However, some have a negative impact on us. Eating when you’re not hungry, heading straight home instead of going to the gym, or having a glass of wine after work.
Do you have these bad habits that you have been repeating over and over again every week and they seem impossible to break? If you do, don’t worry. This happens to nearly everyone, you may have spent years doing something and even though you want to change now, your bad habits are sticking around, sabotaging your success.
Before I give you the strategy to destroy or replace these bad habits, I want you to remember that all of your habits start with a cue.
Every time you do something habitually, there was a cue that triggered the behaviour. It’s part of the script that your brain has developed.
A cue could be absolutely anything, a smell, something you see, something you touch, something you do, a place you’re in… this cue becomes the trigger of predictable and automatic actions.
Here are a few examples of the bad habits my clients have told me about
- Buying chocolate on the way home from work
- Eating the leftover food from the kids tea
- Snacking on biscuits after dinner when they don’t even feel hungry
- Having a few beers at the end of a hard day
Every one of my clients wanted to stop these habits but didn’t have a successful strategy to do so, they felt like they had no control and put it down to poor willpower or low motivation.
This is just not the case, these bad habits are embedded in your brain and unfortunately, willpower and motivation aren’t enough to break the routine.
The good news is there are several strategies for breaking habits.
It’s not always easy, but choose a couple of the strategies below and apply them to one habit you want to change. Persevere for a few weeks (don’t give up), you’ll be amazed how you can change your behaviour.
- Identify the bad habit you want to remove or change
- Make it difficult. If you always crave a glass of wine when you get home, try keeping the wine in a hard to reach place – at the back of a wardrobe, in a box that’s taped up. You have to go to so much effort to get it out that you might not be bothered. This also works by not buying any wine in the first place. The more effort you have to go to, the less likely you are to do it.
- Reduce exposure to the cue that triggers your habit. If you always stop at the same shop on your way home to get chocolate, drive home a different way.
- Make it invisible. Let’s say seeing the biscuit tin makes you want biscuits. Hide the biscuit tin in a cupboard so the visual cue isn’t there.
- Make it so unattractive that you re-frame it in your mind as horrible. Let’s say your favourite snack has the equivalent of 4 teaspoons of table sugar in it. Would you eat four teaspoons of sugar straight off the spoon? Think about this when you want the snack instead, tell yourself it’s bad for you and you don’t want it.
- Get an accountability partner. Find a friend, use your children or partner, as long as they won’t sabotage you. Every time you try and break your habit, get these accountability partners to remind you of your goals and why it’s not worth giving in to your bad habits.
- Reward not giving in to your bad habits. Every time you resist a bad habit, think of a way to reward yourself. It could be to save money towards something you really want or figure out a way to thank your body in a healthy way like a body massage.
Remember if you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you, the problem is your system/daily routines. Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system/routines to change.
Use the above strategies to develop your own system of removing bad habits. Get a pen and write down the habits you want to break and what strategy you can apply to each one.
We can help if you’re struggling to do it on your own. Our 21 Day Kickstart Programme is the first step to banishing bad habits. Find out more by clicking here.