We all know that we have built up some habits over the years that aren’t doing us any favours, that get in the way of achieving our goals, and could even be toxic to our well-being.
If we want to develop new good habits, we need to practise these, but to break the old bad habits we also need to practise not doing those.
Habits are hard to break because they are hard wired, well practised actions, that often bring about some sort of pleasure, which then releases chemicals in the brain, which makes you want to do it again. This is how addictions work – its chemical!
Do you know what your most damaging habits are? Can you turn these into opportunities that will bring about the biggest wins for you on your new healthy lifestyle journey?
- If you have a habit of eating slices of bread and butter, or cheese, whilst making the tea, stopping that could save you literally hundreds or even thousands of calories a week.
- Or, if you have a habit of eating half a packet of chocolate digestives when you have a hot drink, stopping this could also be really beneficial.
- Do you automatically put a garlic bread on the table when you have a pasta tea, or do you automatically reach for a pudding once your evening meal is finished? Stopping these habits again could save you a massive amount of calories a week.
- Can you stop at one or two beers, or do you always have to have half a dozen, a few gin and tonics, a couple of Jaegerbombs and a kebab on the way home? Do you drink alcohol every day? Is reducing your alcohol intake your opportunity to save some calories, and maybe improve your liver function at the same time?
In order to break bad habits, Psychologists say that you need to actually identify those bad habits that you want to change – you will need to define that behaviour very specifically so that you can start to break down what is going on psychologically. So, you need to have a really good look at what you do, and decide if this is something that is damaging and worth having a go at stopping.
Different people deal with habits and breaking them in different ways…
Some people are able to break habits by just deciding they are no longer going to do it! They no longer identify themselves as that person. These are the ‘all or nothing people’, they are either doing something or they are not. We all know people like this, people who can just stop smoking or drinking, by going cold turkey. The reason this works for them is that they change their belief in who they are. They go from being a drinker, to a non-drinker, not a ‘drinker who is trying to cut down’.
Some others are ‘replacers’. They have to replace their bad habit with something else. This is a technique we often suggest, if people have compulsions to eat, particularly in the evening. We recommend replacing that activity by keeping yourself busy and taking up a new hobby, which will take your mind off your bad habit and keep you focussed on something that is a healthier new habit.
Slowly works for many but you have to be a patient person to do it this way. Small steps each time to gradually eradicate, or reduce, those habits that are stopping you from being successful. Some people might have such ingrained habits that they have to do it very gradually, unlearning old behaviours and practising new behaviours.
So, this might mean, reducing the number of biscuits you eat in one sitting, slowly, so that you are weaning yourself off. Or reducing the number of nights that you drink alcohol from 7 to 5, then 5 to 3, then 3 to 1, rather than stopping altogether.
Of course you may decide that stopping altogether isn’t something that you want to do, so you stop at a level that is acceptable to you and what you are trying to achieve. Rick went from 5 alcohol nights to no alcohol nights whilst he was losing the bulk of his weight, then gradually reintroduced alcohol to an average of 1 evening each week. He is seriously thinking about leading an alcohol free lifestyle but needs to deal with it psychologically first before taking that step.
Head in the right direction
There is no right or wrong way to break habits. You must find what works for you. You may find that you have used all three tactics at some point through your life. But if you know you have a habit that needs breaking, why not have a go at all or a combination of these strategies to see if one works for you?
Looking at the deeper psychological side of habits, it is thought that habitual behaviours will come about due to a set of triggers. Find the trigger, and put in place an action plan to deal with that trigger in a different way and stop you fulfilling the habit. Simple right?! If only!
Some psychologists believe triggers will fall into one of five categories:
- Location – you’re in a certain place, so you must do a certain thing. An example might be, you walk in from work starving, walk straight to the fridge and eat half the contents whilst making your tea. Another might be, you are in the car, so you must eat boiled sweets, or smoke cigarettes. If location is your trigger, change the location. Can you be somewhere else? Or set a new rule for yourself, that in this location, you don’t do this any more?
- Time – its lunchtime, therefore you must eat. You might not be hungry, but it’s 12 o’clock, so its lunchtime, so you have to eat something. Or its Friday night, you must have an alcoholic drink. Stop before you open the fridge to get out the beer or the food, are you hungry? Do you really need a drink? Or, can you distract yourself with something else until the craving has gone? Can you fill your Friday evenings doing something else instead?
- Emotional State – you’re upset; therefore you must eat. You’ve had a rubbish day at work, fallen out with your partner, and the kids are being particularly challenging, so you’re going to the shop and you’re going to buy and eat three chocolate bars to make you feel better. Or you’re tired and its warm, so you must have a beer when you get in from work. This is perhaps harder to deal with, as you need to find a new way to deal with these emotions. Could it be putting some upbeat music on, turning it up loud and singing your head off? Could it be having a nice hot shower, and a bit of a pamper, or a lie in the bath with some candles lit? Could it be going for a walk, or a run, or some sort of exercise?
- Other People – they cause you, or encourage you to do a particular thing – it’s just what you do when you are together. We all have those friends, with whom we get up to no good. We are bad influences on each other – those who one beer after work turns into a full-on night out, umpteen shots and a kebab on the way home. Or perhaps less rock and roll might be, when we meet up we always go for a rich milky coffee and a cake. Just because these are the people we do this with, it doesn’t mean we can’t see these people again if we want to change this habit. But what we do need to do, is identify that if the activity you do with them is damaging for you, then it might be a good idea to make some suggestions of different activities, that are perhaps a little more aligned with your goals. If they are your friend, I am sure they will understand and support you.
- An immediately preceding action – you’re having a cup of coffee, you must have a biscuit with it. This is perhaps a little simpler – you just have to find a way to stop the preceding action. Change your drink? Give up coffee – if you can?
It might be hard for you to define your trigger, so in these cases its recommended that you slow down. When you realise you are craving something, stop, slow down and work back through your actions and emotions that led you to the point you were craving something.
Once you have identified the triggers, you can start to do something about these. This will involve taking positive action, when you know your triggers are going to kick in. It will be hard and it will be uncomfortable, but if you don’t change anything, then how can you ever expect anything to be any different.
Have a look at those destructive habits, rituals and behaviours that you have.
Pick one! And work through developing a strategy to help you change that behaviour. You might need to try lots of different strategies till you eventually find the one that works for you. The most important thing is to keep trying.