How to form new healthy habits
By Juliana Kassianos, Transformational Coach, Yoga Teacher and Founder of The School of Fertility
Changing everyday habits that can determine the state of our lives, for better or worse, is no easy task. But there’s a secret to building healthier routines that stay with us for life.
If like me, you sometimes determine that you’re going to start a fresh, resolving to kick out old habits and replace them with new routines, you’ll likely begin full of optimism and intent, going through the ritual of making a long list of resolutions, convincing yourself this time round it will be different and you’ll stick to them. After all, you’ve set yourself simple, logical changes that sound doable: “I’m going to floss my teeth regularly”, “I’m going to eat healthily” and “I’m going to exercise daily”. Yet every time, within weeks, you run out of steam, and return to your normal routine. You joke with friends about it, often seeking comfort in their tales of similar failures. But why are old habits so tough to kick? And why is it so hard to form new ones? Several factors work against us, but with increased awareness, we can become creatures of new, different habits.
By definition, habits are automatic behaviours we do repeatedly on a regular basis. They are formed gradually and become second nature, allowing us to work on autopilot as we perform them without really thinking. Some habits are positive and make us more efficient, practising an instrument for two hours every day, for instance, because we are consciously looking to acquire the habit and get better. The issue comes from habits that we acquire unintentionally – ones that form subconsciously so we cannot be sure of their intended consequences. These are too often the ones that fall into the ‘bad’ habit category and can be most detrimental to the quality of our life. A simplistic example would be me pulling out my mobile phone at the dinner table to check my messages. Why do I do this? For no reason other than habit.
But let’s return to those times when we set ourselves resolutions. What’s the big deal if we haven’t stuck to them? There’s always the next time. Well, according to researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, habits account for approximately 45% of our everyday behaviours. This means a huge proportion of our life is made up of ingrained habits whose impact on our life is often unknown. An while changing them may seem difficult, it’s not impossible once they have been identified. First, though, we need a greater understanding of how we develop habits and an enlightened approach to shaking them off.
HOW ARE HABITS FORMED?
The behaviours we acquire are shaped by observation and imitation. Our environment and the people with whom we grow up can, to a degree, predispose us to certain kinds of behaviours. The process by which these behaviours become automatic is known as habit formation and involves three-parts: first a trigger, action and reward. The trigger is an event that initiates the action, the action is the behaviour itself, and the reward is the benefit you get from performing the action.
Think about when you wake up in the morning. Probably one of the first things you do is brush your teeth. You don’t have to remember to do this, it’s automatic. In this case, the trigger is waking up, the action is you brushing your teeth and the reward is fresh, minty breath.
The ultimate secret to building long-lasting healthy habits is the emotional reward the body gets from carrying out the action, because this is what drives the three-part habit loop. No habit will stick unless you have a high emotional connection to it. By connecting the action with a neurological perception of reward, it gives you the feeling of craving so you follow through on the action, which means you are not reliant on willpower.
Repetition of this three-part loop results in the creation of neural pathways within part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. It’s here the context of the habit is remembered and it becomes as ingrained as the rings on a tree. Changing our hardwired habits means we have to rewire the neural pathways and this is why bad habits take time to break. As the proverb goes: “Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of.”
HOW TO BUILD NEW ROUTINES
When it comes to making things happen, we often want to see quick results, but the truth is you need consistency, sustained motivation and persistence. Remember the story of The Tortoise and the Hare. Slow and steady wins the race. Take the following small steps now to reap great rewards sooner rather than later.
1. Practice mindfulness
Our habits reveal a lot about us. The practice of mindfulness gives us the ability to pause and consciously recognise and reflect on our habitual impulses, actions and reactions. We become aware of how our involuntary habits have a powerful effect on our lives and can assess whether they are positive or negative and whether we want to keep or lose them.
Be mindful as you go about your day. Become aware of any actions you are making, no matter how small they may be and make a mental note of them. At the end of the day, write down both the positive and negative actions you carried out. If you find it hard to notice your bad habits, be brave and ask someone close to you to be brutally honest. Now pick one of the negative actions from your list – the one you would most like to change. This is the first bad habit you are going to work on replacing with a healthier alternative.
2. Develop a strategy
Write in a journal the bad habit you have chosen including the trigger, action and reward. Now note down the action and reward of the good habit you would like to replace it with, assuming you are keeping the same trigger. However, if the trigger for the new habit is different, try to remove anything that would stimulate the trigger associated with the bad habit you are trying to break.
When choosing the new habit, make sure it’s really rewarding – it needs to evoke some sort of emotion in you. For example, I made a habit to eat healthy dinners. However, there was no chance I was going to forgo nibbling on something sweet for dessert so, as my reward I let myself indulge in a piece of dark chocolate after every meal. This stimulated the release of feel-good chemicals in my brain, helping me to wire the habit much quicker and make it stick.
Ensure your new habit has clear progress check points. You need to know that by building the habit you are going to reach a tangible outcome and will be able to chart your progression towards it. Without this, you will lose motivation. For example, after my healthy dinner I check in and ask myself how I feel on a scale of one to 10. As the answer tends to be ‘good’, having eaten a nourishing meal, my brain registers this and so urges me to repeat the act daily.
3. Value versus cost
To break a bad habit and form a new one, you need to have a strong enough reason to make it happen. Ask yourself how the new habit will improve the quality of your life and why it is so important to you.
You must also recognise the cost if you continue along your existing route and don’t practice your new habit. Ask yourself how the bad habit is affecting your life, as well as what the consequence will be down the line, if you don’t kick it.
Write down the answers in your journal and let them sink in so that the reason for forming the new habit is clear in your mind. It will give you a real sense of urgency as you realise it’s something that you need to change now, not tomorrow or the day after.
4. Mental rehearsal
To help anchor the behaviour with the emotional reward, you can use mental rehearsal. This means imagining performing the action and it is incredibly effective in habit change.
First, find somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Sit up straight and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and exhale slowly. Free your mind of distractions and allow it to focus on a mental picture of the situation you will be in when you are going to form the habit. Use all your senses and think about what you see, hear, feel, touch and smell. Imagine the trigger happening and, as a result, actively following through on the action. Having done this, imagine the rush of positive feelings that flood your senses. Now open your eyes. Take a moment to consider how you will feel in a weeks’ time if you stick to your habit. This will reinforce the pleasure associated with the action.
5. Take action
Schedule in a daily slot in your diary to practise mental rehearsal and carry out the new habit in real life. Combining the two will be more effective than doing one alone. It’s important you repeat the three-part habit loop until your action is wired to the old or new trigger.
It’s easy to sometimes have a momentary relapse. Should this happen, don’t beat yourself up about it or let it stop you in your tracks. Just refer back to your journal and soak in why forming the new habit is important.
6. Time to reflect
Schedule time out every week to evaluate and reflect on the progress you have made with your habit. Make sure there is a trigger to remind you. For example, you could choose Sunday morning after you’ve eaten breakfast. Think about your progress in the week, the challenges you encountered and how you overcame them. Jot down your thoughts in your journal, so you can keep track and refer back to them if necessary.
7. Accountability partner
Choose a friend to be your accountability partner. Tell them what you’re doing and schedule time in the diary to speak with them at least once a week for support. Place a cost if you don’t follow through on your action daily, such as cleaning your friends’ car and a reward if you do, say a lazy night in front of the TV watching one of your favourite box sets.
Once you are sure the habit is for keeps, treat yourself and your friend to something a little bigger like a shared spa day. This will motivate you to stick to your path to success and will give your friend the incentive to stay by your side during the process.
So, as you continue to make your way through 2017, let go of old habits that have been holding you back and embrace new ones. Through changing your habits that have the power to change your life. And by changing your life, you can truly fulfil your potential.
• Article published in Breathe magazine, p16-17, Issue 5