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From a late-night serial snacker, to a man with purpose and control – even he would not have believed it. His habit was so deeply engrained that he had come to accept the feelings of guilt and despair that had started to creep in.
As human beings, we all have our own pool of habits and behaviours rooted in our everyday lives, each with their own consequences, some good and some, well, not so good. Smoking, overindulging, nose picking, late-night eating, boozing, losing our temper, staying up late, swearing… the list is endless.
Most of us are aware of our own ‘bad’ habits – perhaps we may even have tried at some point in our lives to kick them, either under the strict instructions of our GP, the plea of a loved one or maybe just after some critical self-reflection.
But how many of us with the best intentions having tried to change, instead have come up against a brick wall, relapsing back to our old ways? I would argue many. (Believe me, you are not alone!)
Transforming a habit is not always easy, but know this: it is possible. The key to success starts in understanding how habits come about and how they work.
Let’s start with looking at the definition of a habit:
“Something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.” – Cambridge dictionary
“Automatic routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly, without thinking. Learned, not instinctive.” – Merriam Webster Dictionary
“A learned behavioural response that has become associated with a particular situation, especially one frequently repeated”. – Collins Dictionary
In summary, it is a pattern of behaviour that is learned, that evolves over time and eventually happens so routinely that it is out of our control.
The brain is known as the control centre of the body and is also a key player in the formation of habits. Scientists now know that habits become stored in a specific part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. Once formed, they become encoded into the structure of our brain – so deep-rooted that when we try to kick the habit or change our ways it can be really difficult.
In order to change a habit, we must first unpick why we do what we do, day in and day out.
The process was famously coined ‘the habit loop’ by Charles Duhigg (1).
Essentially there are three key ingredients needed to form the habit loop – a cue, a routine and a reward.
The Cue is what triggers the habit. It can be:
The Routine is the action that follows a cue. The routine can be:
The Reward. For your brain to recognise a habit as meaningful – for it to be worth remembering in the future – there needs to be a reward. A reward can be a physical sensation (of pleasure or relief) or an emotional payoff for example.
Over time as the behaviour occurs more frequently, the loop becomes more and more automatic and we end up doing something without even thinking.
Let’s take a simple example:
The problem in everyday life is that we often don’t recognise the habit loops as they grow and are blind to our ability to control them. Simply put, if we learn to observe the cues and rewards, we can change the routines.
Don’t get me wrong, changing a habit is not always an easy task. It can take time (anywhere from 18 to 254 days, on average: 66 days), effort, grit and determination. Unless we fight a habit deliberately, the pattern will almost certainly unfold automatically. But if there is a true personal motivation and a good dollop of dedication then almost any habit can be reshaped. The key is to think big and to start small. Small shifts in behaviour over time can and will eventually break the pattern.
Our serial snacker, now having completed his treatment for cancer, realised that he had to change. His weight had rocketed and his confidence had hit an all-time low. His personal motivation was to regain control and feel stronger. First, he figured out that the trigger to the cycle of late night snacking was essentially boredom caused by a lack of motivation. Then he sought to make a change that would put a spring back in his step, a new habit to replace the old one. Thinking big, he thought back to his early years as a footballer and how so much he would love to play again but was too overweight and embarrassed to join a team. Starting small, he decided he would begin to move again. He started with 20 minutes walking every evening after dinner. And it worked. Within months his snacking had improved. He replaced the urges with walking and healthier options and he quickly started to feel the change. His train of thought had completely shifted towards his end goal. A nudge here and a nudge there maybe, but as he began to feel healthier, he grew more confident. Over time those late-night snacks were a distant memory and he pushed on!
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Duhigg, Charles. (2012) The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business New York : Random House,
Gardner, B; Lally, P; Wardle, J; (2012) Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract , 62 (605) 664 – 666.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009.
Lally P, Wardle J & Gardner B. (2011): Experiences of habit formation: A qualitative study, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 16:4, 484-489\