In an earlier post we identified that there are different ways of categorising behavioural change. The type of change we want to make has a huge bearing on the type of strategies that will be effective in achieving success.
Behaviour can be categorised according to whether it is low or high effort and whether it is creating new behaviour or preventing old behaviour.
In this article we want to focus on preventing old habits, which is about redirecting neuronal pathways in the brain. Our neurons send electrical signals when we behave. Over time, repeated signalling makes some pathways easier to trigger than others. That means they take less effort to happen and may even happen unconsciously in relation to environmental stimuli e.g. biting your nails when bored.
Simply preventing an old behaviour is never usually enough. If you close a road the traffic needs to go somewhere. Much of the key to preventing negative behaviours is to find a constructive alternative that satisfies some of the needs.
Habits are existing behaviours that do not take a great deal of effort to over ride (not compared to addictions at least). But the key problem is that these behaviours may be comforting, automatic and so difficult to interrupt. Imagine that you normally drive a particular way back home but one day learn a new route. Before you have had the chance to consciously drive the new way you may already be three roads into the old route.
Common habits that people want to break might include procrastination, snacking, biting fingernails, using particular phrases or language, drinking a lot of tea / fizzy drinks, getting up late etc. The will power needed to not eat a bag of crisps is relatively low, and yet old habits die hard. Resisting the same thing over and over can seem like more of a chore and that is often why we are unsuccessful – each day may seem like a new test to pass and fail. A single failure can sometimes result in the mindset ‘I give up, I can’t stop this anyway.’
Habits may also have an underlying cause or association that needs to be tackled. Stopping biting your nails may be difficult if you are still feeling nervous.
Breaking Your Habits
Distractions – if you notice yourself feeling tempted by your habit then occupying yourself with something different may be helpful. A change of room, activity or company may take your mind away from the habit.
Replacement behaviours – some habits are hard to get rid of altogether without an alternative. People who try to stop swearing often try to find alternative words to use instead – knowing that there is still some satisfaction in a verbal outburst, but a more polite one. When they first begin replacement they will still find the old habit creeping through at times but may stop themselves half way through and switch to the new behaviour instead. Find a replacement behaviour that still satisfies the basic need. I used to have chocolate after lunch all the time. Realising I have a sweet tooth and crave sweet after savoury, I replaced my lunch time chocolate with yoghurt or sweet fruit.
Planned obstacles – with low effort behaviours, it doesn’t take a lot to deter us from them. If you deliberately make it difficult for yourself to carry out the behaviour then you may not bother. For example taking the batteries out of the remote and putting them at the back of the cupboard adds 5 minutes to your process of watching TV. Unless the urge is particularly strong this extra effort may be enough to put you off. See if there are ways you can add barriers to your existing habit behaviours to make them less attractive.
Moderation – cutting out some habits altogether can be difficult. Especially if they are ingrained in our routines. Reducing the habit before getting rid of it altogether can be helpful. For example, nail biters may be advised to only bite a single nail on each hand and leave the others in tact. Though the behaviour still persists there is less to bite and seeing the other nails grow may be a further motivator. Cutting out all chocolate may be difficult but you could moderate by cutting it out midweek or as a snack, instead having it at a designated reward time.
Delayed gratification – there are some psychologists who believe that will power is like a muscle. The more we use it the stronger it gets. If you have a craving for a snack you could try telling yourself that you will wait 30 minutes, and hour. Add in a distraction for that time and its just possible that when an hour comes along you wont feel like it any more. Or you may still have the snack but increase your ability to wait – making it easier to resist in future.
Ride the urge – similar to delayed gratification, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Whilst an urge to behave in a particular way might be strong at first (e.g. morning coffee) if you wait long enough the urge may pass.
Goal reminders – there is a reason you have decided to stop this behaviour. If you take a moment to remind yourself what that reason is, what your goals are and how far you have come then sometimes it gives you a little motivational boost to ignore the urge.
Create Identity rules – when people think to themselves “I can’t… have another snack.” What they really mean is “I shouldn’t”. Psychologically this gives them wiggle room to bend their guidelines. Replacing it with “I don’t” is far more permanent and empowering. However this only works if it is absolutely true. E.g. “I don’t drink coffee until after noon, I don’t swear at work, I don’t snack at home.” Saying you don’t do something gives it a little more authority and gives you more power to resist. But unlike a temporary diet this only works when it is permanent, otherwise it’s just another ‘shouldn’t.’
Kicking the Habit
The key to successfully breaking habits is to reroute those neuronal pathways. Whether it's by introducing a new behaviour or triggering a new thought pattern each time the urge is there. Whilst hard to break at first, persistently resisting will help you reduce the urges over time until it stops becoming so automatic.
Good luck changing those niggling habits into something better.
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