3 Steps To Breaking Bad Habits

As humans, we often give ourselves more credit than we deserve.  We like to think we have total control over our actions – especially when we can point the finger at someone else.  For instance, if someone’s always late, we might call them lazy or accuse them of poor time management.  If someone has trouble with their weight, we blame them for not moving more and eating less.

The reality is that we actually have far less control over our behavior than we like to think.  Research suggests, believe it or not, that about 43% of our daily actions are habitual, conducted on autopilot without much conscious thought or effort.

While we like to think that we’re in charge and take responsibility for everything we do, the truth is that performance reflects habits – not desires and goals.  In order the make or break habits that stick, changing your environment is much more effective than attempting to will change into being.

Said differently, if you’ve struggled to make changes in the past, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  You’re not a failure.  It’s not so much about you as it is about the environment that you’re in and how you control it.

If you want to form new habits (or break bad ones) and make change that lasts, you need to first understand habit memory.  Habits are a learning system that we don’t have a conscious awareness or access to.  They’re relatively slow to form or break, and habit memory tends to last for years.

We develop habits as we repeatedly do the same thing in a given context and get some reward for it.  Because of the reward, we do it again, and again and again.  But unfortunately, habits that may have benefited you in the past don’t necessarily benefit you today.  Habits are a sort of shortcut based on past learning about what to do, but they’re not necessarily the right thing to do today.

If you’ve tried using will power to change your habits in the past, you already know that’s not a very reliable system.  Because as soon as things start to get difficult, we talk ourselves out of the commitment we made.  That’s because the very act of inhibiting a desire makes the desire “loom really large” in our minds and sometimes consumes us.

Instead of changing your thinking, change your environment.  The best way to break an unwanted habit is to change the context so that you’re not in a situation that activates thoughts of the response that you’ve given in the past.

Here are three steps to form a new habit, according to science:

  1. Ease up.  If something’s too difficult, you simply won’t do it.  Make the choice to do better as easy as possible.  Fill your pantry with healthy snacks (and get rid of the junk).  Turn off social media notifications.  Sign up for a gym near your office.
  2. Make it enjoyable.  You’re not going to repeat a behavior you don’t enjoy, and you’re not going to form a new habit for something you hate.  Find a way to make a new habit fun.  And on the other side of the coin, if you’re trying to break a habit, find a way to make it less enjoyable.
  3. Repeat on a regular basis.  On average, it takes about 66 days to make a simple health change.  The more complex the behavior, the longer it might take.  Generally, two months is a good ballpark estimate for the average person to form or break a habit.  If you miss a day, don’t worry about it; just get back on track.  Habit memory takes a long time to form, yet a single skip doesn’t wipe away what’s been built up.

Enjoy your week… Change That Up!

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