Habits and routines account for approximately 45% of our daily behaviours. Changing habits is no easy task. Often habits are patterns of behaviour that have developed throughout our lives and are quite ingrained and hard to shift. We know that our behaviours, thoughts and feelings are all interconnected, meaning the routines we have developed have a significant impact on our mental health and mood. I hear my clients say that they are going to start afresh. They’re going to change their substance use, exercise more, eat healthy, read a book a week, drink more water. They identify the things they want to change, and make plans to do it. After a few weeks, they tell me they fell off the wagon. They ask why are old habits so tough to kick? Why is it so hard to form new ones?
There are several factors that work against us, but with an awareness, we can change our unhelpful habits/routines. Whilst changing may seem difficult, it’s not impossible. Firstly though we need to understand how we develop habits.
Behaviours are often acquired and shaped through observation and imitation. The environment we are in throughout our upbringing can predispose us to developing certain behaviours. Habit formation is the term given to the process whereby behaviours become automatic, and is characterised by three stages; trigger, action and reward. The “trigger” is the event that initiates the behaviour, the “action” is the behaviour itself, and the “reward” is the benefit you get from performing the behaviour.
The secret to creating new habits is through the reward pathway that is activated when we do a behaviour. No new behaviour will stick unless we have a positive connection with it. By connecting action with reward, you are not relying on willpower.
Repetition of the behaviour is the second step in creating new habits. Behavioural repetition activates a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. It is in this area of the brain that the context of the behaviour is stored and where the behaviour/habit is held the deepest. Changing ingrained habits means that we have to rewire the already formed neural pathways, which is why it can take time to break old behaviours. Over time, the neural pathways for the behaviours we do not engage in will start to die off and the new neural pathways will be strengthened.
Often we want to see results quickly. Realistically, we need consistency, motivation and persistence in order to create new habits. The following detail some small steps that you can take to help yourself through this process.
Our habits reveal a lot about us. Reflecting on what it is you want to change, why you want to change it, and how your life will be different because of this change, can help you to identify exactly what behaviour you want to target and give you motivation to sustain that change. As we said earlier, if you’re not connected to it, it won’t be sustainable.
Write down the behaviour/habit you have chosen to change in a journal and note down the trigger, action and reward of that behaviour. Now, note down the new behaviour and the reward associated with this action. When choosing your new behaviour/habit, make sure that it is really rewarding, it needs to elicit an emotion from you. Ensure that your new behaviour has clear progress check points so you’re able to track it and see a tangible outcome. This will help keep you from losing motivation.
- VALUE VS COST
How will the new habit improve the quality of your life? Why is this new behaviour so important to you? These are the questions you need to ask yourself to develop a connection with the new behaviour. You also need to consider the “cost” of continuing your old behaviours. How is the old behaviour impacting your life? What consequences will there be if you don’t change the behaviour? Reflect on these questions in your journal so the reason, or the “why”, you’re changing is clear.
Mental rehearsal is the action of imagining yourself performing the behaviour you wish to make a habit. It is an incredibly helpful tool for behaviour change. In order to practice this, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Close your eyes, and focus your mind on the habit you wish to create. Think about what you see, hear, feel, touch and smell – Imagine using all your senses. Take time to consider how you will feel in a weeks, months, or years time if you stick to your habit. This will help to reinforce the reward of the action.
- TAKE ACTION!
Schedule time in your diary every day to practice the mental rehearsal activity above and carry out the new behaviour in real life. Combining the mental rehearsal and real life action will be more effective than either one alone.
It is normal and easy to have a lapse. If this happens, don’t punish yourself – this is a NORMAL part of the process. Refer back to your journal and remind yourself why you’re on this journey and why creating this new habit is so important.
- REFLECT AGAIN
Make time every week to reflect on and evaluate the progress you have made. Reflect on your progress throughout the week, and the challenges you have faced. Note these thoughts down in your journal and keep referring back to them if necessary.
- ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNER
Having a friend to be your accountability partner can help keep you motivated, and give you support when things get tough. Tell them what you’re doing and set some time aside to speak with them once a week for support. Give yourself a consequence if you fail to check in with them (for example, cleaning their car) and a reward if you do.
Once you feel that your new habit is becoming more automatic and ingrained, treat yourself. Keep activating these reward pathways.
Through changing behaviours/habits that are negatively impacting your mental health and wellbeing, you have an opportunity to change your life. Remember – this is something that takes time, motivation, persistence and a bit of self compassion. If you feel yourself losing motivation or starting to have negative thoughts, refer back to your journal and reach out to your supports.
I’d love to hear about your journey! Please comment below if you wish to share behaviours you’re trying to or have successfully changed. Hearing others’ experiences can be just as motivating!