The Secret to Changing Habits Successfully
I bet you have some harmful habits that you would love to change. What are some of the things you wish you didn’t do? We all have habits that limit us, things we just can’t help doing and we swear we will never do again. Nobody is perfect and everybody has limiting habits—some more than others—but we generally notice our harmful habits once they are already limiting us in some way and we find ourselves saying things like “I wish I could just be more…” or “I wish I didn’t always do that”, and then we simply move onto the next thought, and it is forgotten.
Have you considered how much of an influence your habits have on your life right now? Half your day consists of habits, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. Did you know that almost 40% of the actions you take every day are habitual? Meaning, you act automatically without really making active decisions; you just do. This happens because your brain needs to form habits in order to free up space for other important things. Imagine if you had to learn how to drive and brush your teeth every day; it wouldn’t be much fun would it?
Over the years, you have likely picked up and developed many different habits, some good and some bad, and your habits lead to the results you have in your life right now. Are you happy with them? It is much easier to work towards changing your limiting habits now than to live with the consequences of them later. If you don’t change your habits, you keep reinforcing them, which makes it more difficult to change at a later stage. To effectively change a habit, you need to understand how you are forming them and what makes a habit, a habit.
Let’s focus on habits that are the most difficult to change, like quitting cigarettes.
Studies have shown that there is a habit loop that we follow, which consists of the trigger, the habit and the reward. Studies have also shown us that after some time, the trigger and the reward become so closely associated that it causes uncontrollable cravings. Your body is immediately anticipating the reward the moment there is a trigger and this is why you might get highly irritated when you want a cigarette and you cannot have one.
The habit loop:
1. Trigger: This is what sets off the behavior; the habit as such. It can be anything from something emotional, to situational, or even environmental. For example, wanting a cigarette after a stressful situation, or whenever you have a drink in your hand, or being with a certain friend. We all have different triggers, some obvious and some less obvious.
2. Habit: This is the way you behave, the set of actions you take, and can be emotional or physical. In this example, we have used smoking, but habitual behavior can relate to anything from the way you think, to what you do, to how you would feel.
3. Reward: Of course, this relates to the benefits, the satisfaction you get, there is always a reward. Sometimes the reward might not be obvious to us when the negative consequences of the habit are very apparent, however, there is always a reward., otherwise you wouldn’t do what you do.
Research has also revealed that the best and most effective way to change a habit is to change the routine. Most of us try to change the trigger, but this has proven not to be as successful. For smokers, it is too hard to avoid certain friends, situations or ignore the craving after a meal. Instead, changing the behavior for one which gives the same rewards is key.
- First you must identify the triggers and the rewards.
- Then think about what else can you do (the habit) to give you the same reward? For example, imagine the reward is that you feel lighter, less full after eating or that smoking calms you down when you are angry. Think about other things that can give you the same effect. You will need to test your new routine, think about what will give you the same reward and try it, if it doesn’t work, think of something else.
- Keep doing this until you find the “new habit/behavior” that gives you the same reward.
To do this, you need to invest your time in identifying these triggers and rewards. The point or extent to which you identify the rewards and triggers correctly, will actually determine the extent of your success in changing this.
Here are some helpful tools to assist with change:
- You must believe that change is possible. Having belief in only those things that you can see, is not belief.
- Take consistent action, don’t give up after one attempt, then try again a month later—consistency is key.
- Focus on the reasons why you are doing this and don’t stay focused on how hard and difficult it is to change.
- Be aware of homeostasis, this is your subconscious natural resistance to change. We all have a natural tendency to want to go back to balance and away from change. Our bodies perceive change as threatening, even if it completely the opposite.
- Listen to your own excuses and dispute them. To dispute them, argue with yourself rationally.
- Keep it simple, don’t try to change more than one habit at a time. Rather put your energy on changing one habit successfully and then moving onto the next one. When you are able to change one habit, you will feel more confident in your ability to change more.
- Be aware of your potential obstacles and challenges and prepare for them. We all know what normally gets in our way when changing a habit. Perhaps procrastination, distractions or lack of motivation. Whatever it is, you will be more successful in overcoming your obstacles when you have a plan of how you will do it.
- Put structures up. Structures are reminders to help you to remember to take action on what is important. Structures will only be effective if they are visible. Examples are putting up motivational post its or wearing a string around your wrist, to putting reminders on your email with notifications to leaving a chair in front of your door as a reminder. Whatever works best for you.
If our habits make up such a big part of our life, then what we most often do, shapes our reality and our world. You have the ability to create the life that you want, to get the results you desire. Always finding excuses why your life isn’t the way you want it, might be the first habit you need to break!
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
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