Our habits, over time, build up the experiences that define our lifestyle and the way we approach life. A habit can be physical and health-related, such as eating fatty foods and sweets or smoking cigarettes, or it can be emotional and mental – such as the re-telling of a personal narrative that causes us stress.
Habits are patterns of behavior that often happen outside of our awareness. While you may be most aware of the habits that work against you, what matters most is taking action for change. It is crucial to understand that ineffective habits don’t go away on their own. Unfortunately, breaking a bad habit can be quite daunting for people, and there’s deep-seeded behavioral reasoning for this. We’re hard-wired to re-create experiences that our brain logs as “pleasurable.” The brain is constantly setting expectations for us, so if it recalls that something “felt good” in the past, it reminds us that it will likely be a positive experience again.
The good news is that making a change is possible. by increasing your awareness of the behavior you want to change. Setting timers or alarms that disrupt a typical chain of behavior works for some.
When trying to break a stubborn habit, don’t worry about perfection – a step in the right direction is a step toward change. From smoking to chewing gum, from running late to arriving early (and making it on time!), improving taking active steps toward your habits goal is a process. Although some habits may require professional assistance, you can take steps toward improving your habits by following this these steps process:
- Identify a habit you want to change
Be specific – what behavior do you want to change? This entails accepting that you have a habit of getting in the way of your fullest life. After all, if you avoid the problem, you won’t solve it. Envision the new behavior and make a list of the steps needed to get there. Make a commitment to making the desired change. Tell supportive friends and family about your commitment. Research shows that making a public commitment to others supports committed to action.
- Identify the key factors
Understanding what sets you up to engage in the habit behavior is a key step in figuring out how to break it. Pay attention to what situations bring you to the brink of action – or early in the process of change, catch yourself in the moment of the behavior. What’s going on? Where are you? What are you thinking about? How do you feel? Do you feel nervous, stressed, anxious before coming into a meeting, so you extend the time for as long as possible to avoid? Or perhaps you feel impatient and your nervous system pushes you to “move” in the form of a shaking leg? Keep a mental log of every time your habit response shows up and the events that lead up to it. Soon you will notice a pattern and will understand the important factors that will help you change.
- Making a change – solving problems and replacement actions
Now that you understand some of the factors that set your habit response in motion, you can work to solve problems and find solutions. If you discover that biting your fingernails is something you do when expecting a difficult conversation with someone, plan for the habit by putting on fresh polish or slathering on hand cream. One taste of those products will likely catch your attention and stop the action. Then, try a strategy to cope with the anxiety such as having a soothing cup of tea, listening to music or planning what you want to say or how you will respond to difficult things that may come up in the conversation.
- Set realistic goals
Once you know the problem and the key factors, come up with a plan on how you will overcome it. Setting realistic goals is important because studies show that separating goals into smaller steps make the process much easier and more pleasant to conquer than setting one big, unrealistic goal (which, when failed, can bring you down even more).
For instance, if your goal is to avoid unplanned shopping, create a list of 2-3 questions to ask yourself before buying an item. Try your best to remember to look at this list and think through the questions before making a decision. Chances are, “upgrading” “priming” your mindset with just a few different questions will make a huge difference.
- Measure your progress
As you set your goals and start your journey to break an unwanted habit, make sure to keep a log of your progress handy. Reward yourself every time you are successful at avoiding your habit, but don’t be too hard on yourself when you slip. Changing behavior can be a very challenging process, but so worth it at the end.
- Nurture your change
Lastly, once you’ve established a new habit, nurture it! Remind yourself of what you’ve accomplished and the positive outcomes you see along with that progress. Be proud of yourself and remember that maintaining an effective habit is part of everyday living.