With January 1st at our door, many of us are contemplating what we will resolve to do–or not do–in the new year.
This likely may involve breaking some habits.
And I just happened to do some research on this very topic a couple of weeks ago while sitting at a darling little coffee shop. (Brance watches the girls for me so that I can do this from time-to-time and I am always very appreciative. It’s amazing how much I can get done without interruptions and a good Caffe Americano :).
I can’t think of a better time to share what I discovered. It was fascinating and helpful and I am excited to apply it to my own life! Because, who of us, after all, does not have some habit we wouldn’t benefit from breaking!?
How habits form
So basically, here’s the deal. Normally, when we make decisions about different things in life, the part of our brain that is engaged is the prefrontal cortex.
What do I want for dinner? Should we take our vacation in July or August? Do I need a coat today?
Answering these questions requires that we make a decision.
But there are a lot of things in life that we do repeatedly. Things that we don’t necessarily need to make a decision about, nor do we want to have to focus on them as we do them–to have to learn them over and over again.
We brush our teeth and hair, we drive our cars to work, we write notes and messages, we cook meals for our family etc.
It would be very inconvenient and exhausting if day after day we had to think long and hard about how to brush our teeth or drive or write or cook–as if it were the first time we were doing them.
So our smart brains have a way of dealing with this. They go into automatic mode. And instead of our prefrontal cortex being engaged, it’s our basal ganglia that is doing the work. This is the part of our brain that is connected to emotions, memories, and pattern of recognition.
So there! Thanks to automatic mode, we are now able to answer our toddler’s question from the back seat, and sip on a cup of coffee, all while safely maneuvering through traffic.
And we are so, so thankful for the mental energy that this clears up, most of the time. Otherwise, how would we function!?
The kicker is that this same automatic mode that saves our lives a hundred times a day bites us in the tail when it comes to bad habits. You see, to our brain, a habit is a habit is a habit. There is no good or bad or mediocre. It goes into automatic mode regardless.
This makes it difficult to break bad habits. It’s a little challenging to stop doing something we didn’t “decide” to do, that our brain automatically leads us through when triggered.
So, how do we get out of automatic mode and break bad habits?
It’s important to note first that all habits start with something called a “habit loop”. And this habit loop involves three things.
- Cue/trigger- what sends our brain into automatic mode
- Routine – what we think about when we think of the habit itself
- Reward – something your brain likes that helps it remember the habit in the future (this can make pleasure-based habits especially difficult to break as they cause the release of the chemical dopamine)
The first, and most important, thing we can do is to become aware. Because a cue/trigger is what sends us into automatic mode, becoming aware of it will help you begin to make a change.
This often requires that we slow down, become more deliberate, and think about what we are doing.
Have you ever found yourself doing something in a certain part of your house and wondered how you ended up there doing that particular thing in the first place?
Maybe you had planned on folding laundry in the living room, but the next thing you know you are standing over the kitchen counter eating a donut and responding to a text message. It was automatic mode that guided you every step of the way.
Or, um, social media. Need I say more?
It is easy to rabbit trail all over the place when we are in that mode, right?!
It’s easy to fall into bad habits, or find it difficult to break them, when we are coasting on autopilot.
We must slow down, think, and become aware of our actions if we want to break bad habits.
It is also important to develop a strategy to counteract or replace a habit.
Perhaps the bad habit you want to break has something to do with your diet. Maybe you want to eat less sugary desserts. So instead of just trying to stand strong against all things sweet, perhaps you replace those high-calorie desserts with delicious fruit smoothies.
Or the habit you want to break has to do with spending too much money on items you don’t need. So, to counteract this, instead of going into the store without a plan, wandering around throwing things into your cart, you always arm yourself with a list and don’t allow yourself to stray.
Counteracting and replacing requires that you think and plan.
The neat/encouraging thing is this. The automatic mode that gives us so much grief when it comes to bad habits can become our best friend as we attempt to make new, better habits to replace the bad ones. It just takes some time and repetition.
If you are looking for some good habits to replace those bad ones, I share 7 scientifically backed habits that have helped me enjoy life more than I could imagine in my free ebook, “1 Week to a Happier You”.
Here are three interesting things scientists/researchers have found helpful when breaking habits
- Take a vacation. Putting yourself in a completely different environment helps break you from automatic mode as it removes the environmental cue or trigger. The evidence says a habit is easier to break on vacation. Crazy, huh!?
- Visualize yourself in a tempting situation and then “practice” choosing a good behavior over a bad one.
- Regularly practice different types of self-control. Doing so can strengthen your resolve. The simple act of keeping a food diary or sitting up straight can make your resolve in other areas stronger. Self-control is like a muscle. It get’s stronger the more it’s engaged.
And what you’ve heard about it taking 21 days to break bad habits? It’s a myth. Instead, commit to spending as long or little time as it takes. Psychologist have found it unhelpful to assume a habit will be broken in a certain number of days.
I hope this post helps as you make resolutions for the New Year, or anytime you would like to break bad habits.
Wishing you the best, now and always,