How To Change Habits

How To Change Habits
“We first make our habits and then our habits make us.” – John Dryden

One of the hardest goals to achieve is one relating to overcoming a habit. A habit is a recurrent, often unconscious behaviour that you have acquired through repetition. Habits can be difficult to defeat because they operate at an unconscious level. They are an involuntary response to a certain trigger. As soon as the trigger occurs, you adopt a pre-wired strategy that never even comes into your conscious awareness.

Attempting to overcome habits through willpower and determination can be very difficult, as the behaviour often does not even enter your consciousness to allow you to put your willpower into effect. For example, a smoker may have a cup of coffee and looks down to find a lit cigarette in her hand. She may have no conscious memory of lighting the cigarette.

The best way to replace an old habit is with a new habit. It took us a few goes to arrive at our old habit. If we practice a new response over a period of time, eventually it too will become a habit and will replace the previous habit. There is a theory that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Given the lifetime of benefits you will get from overcoming a habit, 21 days is a small price to pay.

For example, assume your unhealthy habit is to walk to the fridge and eat a bar of chocolate every time something stressful happens in your day. You make a decision to change your unhealthy habit. For 21 days in a row, the first thing you do when you get up in the morning is to walk to the kitchen and slice up fresh vegetables to put in containers in your fridge. You also commit to not having any chocolate in your fridge during this period. Now when you feel stressed and you walk to the fridge, you grab a container of vegetables instead. During this period it will be helpful if you also visualize both your new strategy and the outcome you are seeking as a result of changing the habit.

As another example, if your unhealthy habit is smoking. Every time you feel the urge to smoke, you light up. To help overcome the habit, you could wear a rubber band around your wrist and whenever you feel like a cigarette, flick your wrist with the rubber band instead for 21 days. Your brain will soon have a different unconscious outcome and habit associated with cigarettes. During this period it will be helpful if you also visualize both your new strategy and the outcome you are seeking as a result of changing the habit (for example breathing freely and easily).

Another thing you can do to overcome habit is to identify the triggers that cause you to run the unconscious strategy. Knowing what triggers your habits enables you to avoid the triggers and therefore shut down the unconscious response before it starts.

To do this requires you to complete a matrix for your habit as follows:

Matrix for habits

When you have completed the matrix with 5 points under each heading you will find that the box ‘costs of not continuing’ contains the triggers for your habit. Once you are aware of the triggers, you can begin reprogramming a new habit and ‘heading off’ the old habit.

If you have tried the above techniques and still find that you cannot change the habit, it is time for some soul searching honesty. There is some secondary benefit associated with the habit that you are unwilling to give up. In other words you unconsciously perceive that the benefits you receive from this habit outweigh the disadvantages of continuing the habit. While this continues to be the case you will not be truly motivated to change your habit. The best thing you can do in this situation is to identify the benefits of continuing the habit and find another way to receive those same benefits. Only then will you have the agreement of your unconscious mind to proceed with the change.

(Based on an article published in ezine articles by Petris Lapis, Director Petris Lapis Pty Ltd).