Habits are a double-edged sword. Our brain is designed to find shortcuts (aka habits) to make us more efficient creatures. There are some habits that serve us well, like brushing our teeth or eating an apple a day. There are also habits that harm us – like smoking or spending free time with people who bring us down.
It is possible to break bad habits and quit relationships that aren’t good for us. We just need effective strategies to make big changes happen.
Understand Your Habits
The first step to breaking habits is to understand them. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, says that habits are formed in three steps.
First, there is a trigger that tells your brain to go into habit mode. Next, comes the action you will repeat. The third and final step is the “reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future.” The brain is building shortcuts so we can manage more tasks. It will continue to use those shortcuts until we do something about it.
Observe Your Habits
While at Yale’s Therapeutic Neuroscience Lab, Judson Brewer also recognized that understanding and observing the habit was important. He applied mindfulness approaches to this observation and has found his work to be twice as effective as standard treatment for addiction. He recommends approaching your habit with curiosity, not judgment.
He developed an app called Craving to Quit and recommends a RAIN approach to breaking habits: “Recognize the craving, Allow the craving to be there, Investigate or become curious about the feeling, and N for note, from moment to moment.” This exercise allows the subject to isolate their habit, review their overwhelming need, and break the observation into manageable pieces.
Look at Your Environment
A second but equally important strategy is to look at your environment. Making changes to your surroundings will help you break habits you don’t care for. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives calls this “The Strategy of the Clean Slate.”
If you’d like to stop eating unhealthy food, make sure you don’t have it in the house. If your friends tend to drink too much on a Friday night, suggest a new routine like heading to the movies or out for a hike. If they aren’t willing to do something different, it might be time for new friends. That’s because Rubin suggests that times when you have a “clean slate” (or a big change in your life), are the best times to break a bad habit and replace it with a good one.
Make the Good Habits Convenient
Gregory Ciotti suggests in Psychology Today that you can take changing your environment a step further by making those habits you want to build convenient, and those you want to break, inconvenient. If you want to get fit, choose a gym that’s on your way home from work rather than a cooler one across town. Want to eat healthier at work? Prepare snacks like crudites, dried fruit and almonds, and sliced apples the night before. You’re less likely to head for chips at the vending machine if you have better options readily available at your desk.
Check-in With Yourself
The third and final step to breaking a habit is to check in with yourself regularly. Psychologists found that to make positive change stick, subjects had to monitor their progress. They also found that “monitoring progress had an even greater effect if the information was physically recorded or publicly reported.”
If you know a person in your life who regularly imposes a negative influence on you, write down what they say or do and how it makes you feel. When you spend time with someone who increases positive action in your life, do the same. Tracking those emotions will help you make better decisions about with whom you spend your time.
If you’re trying to lose weight, hop on the scale at a regularly scheduled time and record your results. Tracking your progress will become a great motivator as you begin to achieve more and more. It isn’t always easy to walk away from a bad relationship or change a bad habit. With solid discipline and techniques to help us, it is possible to make positive changes in our lives.
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