Many bestselling self-help books are about creating healthy habits. You may have read several of them such as ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’, ‘Atomic Habits, ‘Tiny Habits’, ‘The Power of Habit’ or ‘Make Your Bed’.
Some also address how to break old unwanted habits. The combination of this freedom plus installing new desirable and sustainable behaviours is nirvana.
Over 40 per cent of our daily actions are habitual. Think of them as repeat responses (that have worked for us in some way in the past) that are automatically fired by our brains as a shortcut to success. Sadly, your subconscious mind isn’t very subtle. Each day you are alive it regards its job as done. That’s because we are wired via the primitive part of our brain, to simply survive to ensure that our species continues.
Now, with extended lifespans we want lives that are more nuanced. Lives that include being happy and fulfilled and the ability to feel good about ourselves and our choices.
So, when a ‘bad’ or undesired habit keeps cropping up we not only can find it hard to break but also suffer from feelings of failure that we can’t stop it.
It is like we are living our own personal Groundhog Day with recurring habits that can keep us in pain or hold us back. Culturally, we then are then led to believe that if only we had more willpower then we would be able to change.
If ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ were true then all New Year’s resolutions would come true and everyone who went on a diet and has shown that they have the will to lose weight would do so. Permanently.
Sadly, experience has probably taught you that intention means nothing and these well-intentioned actions can be thwarted and you end up feeling worse than before. So, know this; it is NOT because you lack willpower or are weak willed.
Speaking consciously, it highlights the need to develop a proper mindset, framework and systems to create the actions and habits to enable you to succeed. Plus, a really compelling reason WHY.
According to neuroscientist Jud Brewer M.D., Ph.D., the secret to creating a habit that you can stick with is to become ‘enchanted’ with it. He says that when we try new things we are, for a while, really enchanted with them.
So, remembering how this feels and focusing on the “Bigger Better Offer (BBO)” of what that new habit will bring you (in other words the ‘why’ of doing it) is key.
While we regard people with good habits and successful lives as being highly self-controlled, research in this area indicates what they are really good at is understanding how situations influence our actions. They create the right environment for desirable repeated actions. In addition, they eliminate friction and the temptation to fall back into an old familiar old pattern of behaviour.
In other words, they set themselves up for success.
Rather like someone wanting to ‘Stay Sober for October’, they replace the habit of a glass of wine each evening with something else. This could be a substitute for the wine that keeps the ritual of pouring it out. So, they select their favourite wine glass, put some olives in a dish and then pour a chilled glass of Kombucha instead.
Success can also be achieved by distracting yourself at the key ‘trigger’ time. Subscribing to an online Pilates class at 7pm followed by watching a movie at 8pm for example will get you through the ‘temptation time’ when it was easy to reach for that habitual drink.
But are conscious actions enough?
Wearing my therapist hat here, it is true that ‘will’ or willpower does reside at your subconscious level. The prefrontal cortex creates and regulates logic, reason, willpower, voice, decision making and good judgment in the brain. It can regulate emotional responses because it adapts to solve problems (caused by the emotional responses of the subconscious).
This is why people talk about rewiring your brain.
Neural pathways (through the RAS or Reticular Activating System) are reinforced via repeated emotional responses that lead to actions, and those actions are founded on a few key factors.
Firstly, a trigger or a cue – This can be a conscious behaviour such as getting home and changing into your sweat pants and feeling the need to relax each evening.
Secondly there is a routine – we can get into new ones quickly. Think of walking into a shop now and how you look for the hand sanitizer then apply some almost automatically.
Thirdly there is a reward.
The good news is that once you recognise the pattern that is no longer working for you, it can be broken. After all, if it is a really destructive behaviour you don’t want it to break you.
The frustration of vowing to change a behaviour (even if the behaviour isn’t physically unhealthy) and then failing repeatedly to do so can affect adversely your emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.
The counter is to take control and here, to help you at any time, is a handy new HABIT:
H: Have the right environment to foster success.
A: Avoid triggers or use diversionary tactics at times they appear.
B: BBO – What is your Bigger Better Offer or reason WHY?
I: Install new routines.
T: Treat yourself as a reward for creating and maintaining a new habit.