In my last blog (link) I wrote that we humans are creatures of habit and I explained why this makes it difficult for us to break the habit loop. A lot of effort and determination are needed to avoid certain patterns of behavior and – most importantly – to replace them with new habits. Today, I will tell you how this works and I will give you some practical tips.
“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time,” Mark Twain once said. So be prepared: Trying to break a habit won’t be a piece of cake – or rather, a piece of chocolate, if you recall one of the examples from my last blog. First and foremost, the process takes a long time – an average of 66 days, as scientists at University College London (UCL) have discovered. The actual amount of time needed varies enormously, however: The individuals participating in the UCL study took between 18 and 254 days to establish a new habit. Today, I will tell you more about how best to achieve this and share some useful tips. In other words: I’ll discuss the factors that can influence the process, how well you will do and how long it will take.
As I already mentioned in my last blog, the crucial thing is to not simply break a bad habit but to replace it with a new habit that brings the same reward. Returning to the example of chocolate that I used last time: This means replacing the habit of eating chocolate with another habit that also leads to relaxation. The type of new habit you establish is a matter of individual preference – everyone needs to discover what works for them. You must simply ensure that one bad habit does not replace another, which is what happens to many smokers when they give up cigarettes and, instead, eat more sweet foods – meaning that they subsequently gain weight.
The German coach Ivan Blatter has defined three phases that occur in order for an old habit to be broken and a new one to become established:
- Start phase: Breaking an old habit and creating a new one. Although this requires energy, it is often not that difficult at the beginning because you are highly motivated.
- Resistance: The old habit has not yet been completely broken, and the new one is not yet fully established. The initial momentum has grown weaker and the positive effects are still too small. It takes a lot of willpower to establish the new habit more and more each day – making this the most dangerous phase.
- Establishment: The old habit has not yet been forgotten but the new habit slowly becomes the norm and is gradually established. Increasingly, you no longer have to consciously think about practicing the new habit every day. Over time, it becomes a new automatism.
Before embarking on this process, it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions (according to the job portal www.karrierebibel.de and the Austrian project manager Ewald Müller):
- General points:
- How strong is my habit? How long have I had it?
- How much experience do I have of changing habits? Reason: every successful change shortens the transition time.
- Am I doing this for myself or for someone else? I am more likely to succeed if I am doing this for myself.
- What has prevented me from changing my habit?
- To identify the cue:
- What happens immediately before I carry out the habit?
- How do I know I am behaving in a habitual manner?
- In which situations does this habit occur?
- To determine the reward or the desire:
- Why do I do what I do?
- What do I gain from the habit?
- What would I miss if I didn’t behave in this habitual way?
- To find a new habit:
- How else could I satisfy this desire?
- How do others deal with this need?
- Which other actions are there in my life that already allow me to satisfy this need?
- How will I benefit from the new habit?
As you can see from these questions, it is vital to be well prepared. Spontaneity is the main reason why only 12% of New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved.
As a final point, I would like to share some specific tips that should hopefully help you to alter your habits:
- Only change one habit at a time. Otherwise, you will find the process too challenging and this will reduce your chances of success.
- Pain is stronger than desire: Increase the pressure of suffering before you begin, e.g. by finding out online about the negative health impacts of being overweight.
- Next, set yourself a clear and positive goal (e.g. not: “I never want to get fat again” but rather “I will lose weight and feel good about my body.”). The brain does not recognize the concept “not”, which is why the effect would be counterproductive. Using as much emotional intensity as possible, try to visualize how you will look and feel when you reach your ideal weight and what other people will say about it.
- Start with small changes when you are basically fit and well – and not when you have numerous other problems at that point in time. If you are facing major changes in your life, developments such as a separation or even an illness can give you a chance of success.
- Be prepared for setbacks and already consider in advance what could prevent you from achieving your resolutions – and what you will then do.
- Tell as many people as possible about your resolution. Social pressure can help you to succeed.
- Help yourself to achieve your goal by creating a cue using post-it notes, by setting an alarm on your smartphone or by getting out your running shoes the evening before. The brain then links getting up and seeing running shoes with your new jogging regime, which leads more quickly to an automatism. Once you have managed to establish a new cue, the new habit will occur automatically.
- Create rituals, e.g. with a fixed routine for jogging.
- Change the context. Psychologist Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California has shown in many different experiments how strongly we associate situations with actions. This means that if you want to change your behavior, you have to change the context. In one of Woods’ studies, it emerged that smokers who wanted to break their bad habit were twice as successful if they gave up cigarettes while on holiday. Alcoholics should, for example, avoid going to restaurants, as these are places where they are more likely to want a drink.
- It is helpful if the new habit is enjoyable.
- Practice the new habit on a daily basis at first – otherwise, it will not become properly established. This is important because the brain learns through repetition.
- Monitor and, more importantly, celebrate the progress you make. Set yourself interim goals and, in the early part of the transition process, reward yourself each time you accomplish these small steps. Later in the process, you can spread out your goals and their clebrations.
Horace once said: “Habit is a tyrant”. I hope these two blog posts on changing habits will help you defeat your tyrant! I wish you a lot of stamina and success.
© Claudia Kraaz