Habit change is hard. Your brain is hard-wired against it, even if your habits are harmful to your health.
On top of that, some of your actions are being driven by forces you may not even be aware of.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is, just like with habit change, there is a way to overcome it.
I find human behavior extraordinarily fascinating. Almost nothing we do is done by accident. There is almost always a conscious or unconscious driver of every choice we make and action we take. If you can break down your behavior and understand the emotions behind it, you hold the keys to ending that cycle and creating true lasting change.
In the book “Power of Habit” by Charles Duhhig, the author describes a cycle that drives most behaviors: the cue, the routine, and the reward.
Almost every decision or behavior follows this pattern. For example: you pass a candy dish at work. Each day you reach in and grab a piece of candy, even though you know you’re tying to stick to a diet and you will regret the candy later. But you do it anyway. Almost without thinking.
What Duhhig states is that if you dig a little deeper, you will likely find a cue that is causing you to act. Maybe you’re tired and stressed by your job. You see candy, which tastes good and momentarily makes you feel good. So the cue is stress, the response “routine” is to eat candy, and the feeling of tasting something yummy is the reward.
Fascinating isn’t it? If you want to stop a behavior or habit, digging deeper into the psychology behind it really helps.
Pick something you want to stop doing but can’t seem to. Then go through these five questions:
When the behavior happens (such as grabbing a piece of candy) –
Where are you?
What time is it?
What’s your emotional state?
Who else is around?
What action preceded the urge? (Did you have a tense conversation with your boss? Did your child start screaming in the grocery store?)
Once you’ve gone through this exercise you should be able to see a pattern emerge. Now, you can start to break the habit.
First, have a plan for what you’re going to replace the current behavior with. Instead of grabbing a piece of candy, you’re going to get a glass of water.
Next – know what the triggers are, so that when you encounter them you can be ready to put your plan in place and use the new behavior in place of the old one. You can also create your own obstacles to avoid returning to the previous behavior, such as not going near the candy dish, not keeping certain trigger foods in the house, or finding a different route home from work instead of going past your favorite fast food place.
Replace the bad behavior with a better one, and keep at it until it feels weird not to do this new, better behavior.
Sometimes digging into your own emotions doesn’t feel good, and oftentimes some of the habits we’ve created are being used to help us avoid feeling those bad feelings. As you start hacking your feelings and behaviors you may find there are some underlying realties or issues you need to deal with. That’s ok! In order to move past something you must first acknowledge and recognize it. If you find there are issues you are still struggling with and are having trouble tackling them alone, I highly recommend working with a professional such as a licensed clinical therapist who can help you along the path to overcoming those emotions and moving forward.