How to Break a Habit… or Start a New One

Did you know that scientists estimate that up to 95% of our daily decisions happen as a result of habits? Habits are much more powerful than we realise. So often we act out of what we are used to, what we know, what we have done in the past instead of making a choice that might be for our higher good. However, in researching this issue, you’ll find that detrimental behaviours can be modified by focusing on changing patterns and forming new neural pathways.

Jeremy Dean, the author of the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, provides some strategies for creating new habits and getting rid of old ones.

How are habits formed?

A:Through repetition, when we repeat the same action in the same situation. Each time we repeat the same action, we’re teaching ourselves a pattern and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. After a while we’ll perform that response automatically. If you want to create a new good habit, you need to repeat the same action in the same situation to create that unconscious link between situation and action.

What’s the best way to get rid of a habit?

A:In some ways it’s not possible to get rid of a habit because any habit you create tends to stay in the mind forever. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re destined to perform our bad habits for the rest of our lives. What we can do is replace a bad habit with a good one, or at least a neutral one. So for example, if you’re trying to give up smoking, quite often people choose to chew gum, because it’s generally incompatible with smoking.

Sometimes replacement requires a lot of willpower. How do we get beyond this obstacle in order to make a change?

A:When you’re trying to change a habit, you’re going to have this fight, this kind of willpower battle, between the new habit and the old habit. After a period of repetition, though, the new response will take over and you won’t need the willpower anymore. What you’re looking for is for that new response to be automatic, so you don’t have to have that struggle with your willpower.

What about creating a whole new habit?

A:The first thing is to have a really specific goal in mind, like flossing for example. And you have to have a really specific plan, so what you do is try to connect the situation with the action you’re going to take. For example, you decide that before you brush your teeth in the morning, you’re going to floss. In this way, you’re linking the new habit onto another routine action you have in your day. Now repeat this sequence every day.

Can you tell us a little bit about “If/Then” plans, which are supposed to be helpful in creating habits?

A:If you’re thinking about, for example, trying not to eat unhealthy snacks between meals, you can use an if/then plan. “If” is the situation and “then” is the action. So “if” you’re feeling hungry between meals, you can link that with “then” eating an apple. You can use this for almost any type of habit that you want to create. Studies show that if you make a conscious plan like this, it can really help to get started with a new habit.

What are some other strategies that are helpful in forming good habits?

A:At the beginning, when you’re struggling between old habits and new habits, if your willpower levels are low, one thing that can help is self-contention. Think of someone or something that’s important to you. So when you’re feeling weak and tired at the end of the day, this can help boost your self-control. Leave little messages where you can easily find them like on the fridge, or near the door, or on your doorstep, to remind yourself of what you’d like to change. Pre-commitment is quite handy. What you do is try and think ahead to times when you’re going to be tempted to follow your old habits, and think of how you can commit yourself in advance to your new habit. So if you’re trying to avoid using PlayStation, you can give the controls to a friend so that you won’t be tempted. When you’re feeling strong, you make a decision so that when you’re feeling weaker and more susceptible later, the temptation will be gone.

How long does it take to form a new habit?

A:There was a study done at University College London a few years ago that found that there is huge variation in the amount of time it takes to form a new habit. Anything from 18 days up to 18 months depending on the type of habit you’re trying to form and the techniques you use to do so.

In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks habits down into “habit-loops”: “First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  Then, there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic.”

Things to keep in mind about habits… 

As Duhigg explains, “A number of studies show that informing people about their habits makes them easier to control. They don’t need to be looking for the cues and rewards, but just being aware of repetition actually helps people a lot.”

Keystone Habits:

We also learned about habits that can trigger other positive habits: “There are some habits – called keystone habits- that can cause a chain reaction through someone’s life. A great example of a keystone habit is exercise. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they often start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and getting to work earlier. They smoke less, and show more patience. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why, but for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

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