The Secret to Breaking Bad Habits For Life
Habits – bad or good – can be changed. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes not, but here’s why and how you can change something that you’re not happy with.
How we learn a habit and can re-learn a new one.
You probably can’t remember when you were a baby and crawled in ordered to get from A to B but that’s what your developing body was able to do at that time. As you grew, you learned to toddle and then to walk without falling over. However as an adult you can still crawl on the floor if you need to because you haven’t forgotten how to, you just have a more efficient way of getting about now.
This analogy is useful for 2 reasons.
The first is that, while crawling and toddling aren’t habits as such, we do them because of a rehearsed set of neuronal pathways in the brain that cause a certain behaviour. This is the same with a habit – a rehearsed neural pathway becomes like a highway in the brain that you travel down every time you repeat that behaviour, which reinforces it. Everything from picking your nose to bad driving habits to exercise and eating habits is a behaviour pattern that can be reinforced or changed.
When you choose a new habit over the old way of doing things you’re choosing to go down a different highway. This highway will start off feeling unfamiliar and more like a rough country track than a road, but the more you travel down it (ie practise) the easier it will become.
That’s the second reason the baby/toddler learning to walk analogy is useful. Babies don’t give up learning to crawl and toddlers don’t give up learning to walk. They fall down, get up, fall down and get up again. As adults we often forget that learning can be hard work and that we need to keep getting up and trying again.
This will be the same in learning a new habit to replace the bad one.
How to be your own health coach.
Stages of learning.
Knowing this will help you understand how far you’ve come in breaking an old habit and learning a new one.
1. Unconscious incompetence. This means you don’t know what you don’t know. For example you don’t realise your habit of gossiping at the water-cooler is giving you a bad name.
2. Conscious incompetence. Here, you’re aware of your habit but don’t know what to do about it.
3. Conscious competence. You know you need to change, are making changes but it feels like an effort – the ‘rough country track’ (see above) of biting your tongue when chatting at the water-cooler.
4. Unconscious competence. Here you automatically do the new behaviour without having to think about it.
Good habit-breaking habits.
- Make the habit specific in your mind. What exactly is the habit that needs to be changed and what are you thinking and feeling when you perform it?
- If there are negative emotions associated with the bad habit (you gossip at the water-cooler through boredom/ frustration/ anger etc) are there better ways to deal with this?
- This second part of the equation makes up what you’re going to do to replace the bad habit. Think of a few alternatives and pick one. This could be as straightforward as replacing negative gossiping with being positive and supportive by thinking of yourself as the person who can boost office moral: this belief or image of yourself is the new habit you need to practise.
- Decide how much you want to change your habit. Is it embarrassing, causing someone else pain or embarrassment, affecting your health or wellbeing in some way? This is your motivation to change, so when you fall over while trying to break your habit, you have a strong reason to get up and keep going.
- Keep a journal or notebook handy to write about the habit and track how well you’re doing. This increases your self-awareness around the old and new habits. You can write out you frustrations and plan rewards here.
- Be patient with yourself, just as a baby learns to stand and toddle, he falls but gets up again.
- If it’s appropriate, tell other people what you’re trying to do, get their support and tell them what they can do to help you. Perhaps someone could act as a coach and hold you accountable to yourself for succeeding at breaking your bad habit.