Bad habits; everybody has them and most are keen to break them. So why do we find ourselves repeating those same old self-defeating habits, time and again?
How do we form habits? Why do we find it so difficult to alter our behaviour? The answers lie in our physiology, hormones, and brains. A habit (bad or otherwise) has three stages; ‘trigger’, ‘behaviour’, and ‘reward’. Reward aids the brain in recalling the steps taken to get said reward, so behaviour can be repeated for further gain; the behaviour is now incentivised, creating a ‘habit loop’, which keeps us repeating particular sequences, and patterns of behaviour.
Habits are triggered by cues or associations that provoke a specific behaviour or response. The trigger signals the brain to proceed on ‘autopilot’, meaning the behaviour or action taken following a trigger may be automatic and unintentional, though still brings gratification, or reward. There must be something pleasurable or enjoyable about an experience in order for a habit to be established. If this element is missing, the brain has no incentive to repeat or reinforce the behaviour. The ‘reward’ drives us to repeat the same routines and behaviours – even those we’d rather not have.
Three things encouraging us to return to our bad habits:
- Living for the present – Often seen positively, and as being a great way to live, when it comes to habitual negative behaviours, living in the now is not always a positive. Preoccupation with the present means we lack foresight into the future, and fail to consider the consequences of present actions. Take sun-bathing and tanning beds, both activities may have severe outcomes in years to come. By prioritising our appearance and the look we want today, we overlook our future health and happiness. Despite having little control over many events in our life, a tendency to tell ourselves, “it’ll never happen to me.”, further hinders our assessing future possibilities. Don’t sell yourself short; being mindful of consequences may motivate you to rid yourself of a bad habit once and for all! Your future self will thank you!
- The desire to ‘fit in’: Are you holding on to a bad habit because it makes you feel you are part of a group, ‘one of the gang’? Our peers and social lives can influence our behaviour significantly. Consider smokers; peer pressure may cause someone to take up smoking in the first place, and their current social life now keeps them smoking. Although many people are no longer keen on smoking, a fear of being ‘cast out’ of social groups may keep them puffing away. If you smoke, remember, quitting smoking doesn’t mean quitting your social life! Thankfully, in recent times, smoking has been losing popularity.
- There are no cure-alls: No bad habit has a single strategy for overcoming it; and different things work for different people. So where do you start? Breaking any habit is difficult, and takes commitment, will-power, hard-work, and usually, multiple attempts. It may seem easier to give yourself a pass and remain as you are. Though 70% of smoker’s claim they want to quit, they don’t. Self-indulgence might feel good in the moment, but may not be good for you! Conversely, change can be uncomfortable so is often avoided, but resisting change can be detrimental; embracing change might be the best thing you’ve ever done!
The good news; with a little effort, behaviours can be altered. Here are two tips to help make a change:
- Insight into why we do what we do, is gained by asking yourself how a habit began; what was the experience first linking the trigger, behaviour, and ‘pay-off. Be objective, beating your-self up and/or feeling guilty is unhelpful. Pretend the habit is a friend’s rather than your own; you wouldn’t judge or blame them and shouldn’t yourself. Putting the full cycle in perspective could give you the knowledge to kick the habit.
- Habits result from repetitive actions. Creating strong neural pathways, repetitive actions can create behaviour that is second nature, executed without thought or awareness. Even unconscious behaviours can be changed, and there are things you can do to make this easier. Say a junk food drive-thru tempts you as you drive home from work; find a different route and avoid temptation. The more the drive-through is avoided, the more it loses its hold on you. Doing things differently causes us to THINK differently, allowing us to live differently, and help to replace bad habits with good ones.
A change in routine or environment will boost your chances of breaking a habit. Being in a relaxed setting, unconstrained by the stress and repetition of everyday life, makes it easier to alter patterns of behaviour and short-circuit triggers. So plan a behaviour change when planning your next holiday. A change of scene may be just what you need to kick-start some changes!