We know. Habits are hard to break, and it’s the bad ones that are the hardest to let go of. The phrase “stuck in our ways” comes to mind when thinking about making habit changes. But why do we get stuck in our ways? Why do our habits, especially the bad ones, get so hardwired into our minds? How do we rewire those to become the best version of ourselves?
Why do we form habits?
We are a summation of all that we’ve experienced. Whether it’s physical or mental or spiritual, we become programmed into certain modes of behavior. Your mind is also like the operating system which gets programmed over time by your own environment and experiences. Our mind affects our body, and our body affects our mind.
Habits get wired into our brain through our neural pathways. That’s why we keep going back to them. They’re are ingrained into our brains. Even emotional states are connected to neural pathways. But it is possible to break out of these habits and move on to better and lasting change.
When most people think of breaking habits, they are often reminded of failed diets and weight loss, that morning routine that didn’t last, and more. But, there could be many habits people want to break such as negative thinking, anxiety, always saying ‘no’ to new things…
It’s these hardwired habits and programs that explain why you keep getting the same results over and over again even though your heart wants something else! That’s why it can feel incredibly disheartening to try and make changes to our hardwired habits since they seem to control us, and they’ve been carved into our minds.
You can, however, learn to reprogram the mind and become ‘super conscious’. Through conscious control, you can become the programmer of your own reality. So, whatever the habits are that you want to break, let’s delve into the science of habit and how in the world we can get out of them.
The science of habit
Habits are actually learned responses to external factors and context cues. We have formed these habits over time. For example, every time you sit in the car, you put on your seatbelt. You don’t even have to think about it. The context cue is getting in the car, and so your mind switches to perform the habit: putting on your seat belt.
Habits are automatic responses. If you are trying to change some habits, but are having a difficult time, don’t worry. You are not alone. It does NOT mean that you don’t have the desire to change or the strength to do so. It’s that you’re just not going about it quite right.
In this study, medical professionals found that their patients had much more success with habit change if they were given habit-formation advice. Most people don’t know how to go about changing their habits. They simply head into the activity equipped with their end goal in mind and their motivation to get them through. Then, they lose steam, fail, and are disappointed, ending right back where they started.
But, this study found that if people were given guidelines and a structure on how to make lasting habit change; people were able to progress more in their changes and make them last longer.
Also, because habits are attached to context cues: sitting in front of the TV = eating junk food. Then, this research found that you need to change the context cues in order to make it easier to make habits stick. It takes time because you have to recarve pathways in your brain and create new connections that weren’t there before. But, it is possible!
What can we do?
As an example, say you always have an alcoholic drink when you come home from work. You come home, get a drink, sit down, and enjoy. But perhaps you want to take a break from alcohol or reduce your intake. You need to find a way to break that context cue.
Something you might do is enter in a different door of your house. Carry a water bottle on your way inside. Write a sign on the fridge to remind you of your decision. All of these things acknowledge the cue and work to break that connection.
The study also describes ways to help you break bad habits and create new and healthier behavior patterns, whatever they may be:
1. Be kind to yourself: Beating yourself up about having a bad habit and then failing at changing that habit doesn’t do anyone any good. Some people feel that fuels their fire, but then they get caught in a vicious cycle of habit breaking attempts.
2. Have realistic expectations: break it down into small steps if that works for you.
3. Write down your end goals. Envision what your future would be like without these habits getting in the way. Be clear and concise about what you want. With a clear end goal, you can find the motivation to keep going because you see the end in your mind.
4. Choose a goal that’s meaningful: Not only do you need to figure out what you want your goals to be, but you also need to make sure that they’re YOUR goals and no one else’s. Who has the motivation to achieve someone else’s goals? Progress in habit change is much more
fruitful if the person feels these are goals that are meaningful to them personally.
5. Plan out times when you will work on your habit change: It can feel a bit overwhelming to just have a goal in mind and have to be constantly thinking about it. For example, if you want to add more vegetables to your diet, you could start with one meal: lunch.
6. Adjust your context cues: Make small changes to your environment to help break old connections.
7. Keep a record! Write down when you practiced your new habit, so you can monitor your success. Take note of when you felt susceptible to fall back into the old habit or when the new habit felt easier to complete.
8. Know it takes time: This is essential. People who desperately want to get rid of bad habits would love to see them go away as soon as possible, but that just can’t be! Despite the common saying that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, it could take up to 2-3 months before
you’re not consciously thinking about this new habit anymore. It takes time. Keep saying that to yourself whenever you’re feeling like you want to lose your motivation and slide back to square one.
What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.
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