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The Secret to Changing Habits Successfully

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. You must believe that change is possible. Having belief in only those things that you can see, is not belief.
  2. Take consistent action, don’t give up after one attempt, then try again a month later—consistency is key.
  3. Focus on the reasons why you are doing this and don’t stay focused on how hard and difficult it is to change.
  4. 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.
  5. Listen to your own excuses and dispute them. To dispute them, argue with yourself rationally.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

More by this author

Kirstin O´Donovan

Certified Life and Productivity Coach, Founder and CEO of TopResultsCoaching

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new:

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

The bottom line

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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