“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle
How Are Bad Habits Formed?
Let’s first look at what habits are and how bad habits are formed.
Habits are behaviors that have been repeated often and long enough that the behavior becomes an automatic response. We do things without even thinking about them.
What We Can Learn About Habits From A Rat In A Maze
In the 90s MIT studied the behavior of rats for one of their research projects. They put a rat in a maze and a piece of chocolate at the end. The rat was placed behind a barrier. The rat would hear a click when the barrier was raised.
When the rat heard the click, its brain went into high alert as it began to traverse the maze. It stayed in a high alert mode as it made decisions on which way to turn to find the chocolate it could smell. This same procedure was repeated until the rat learned how to maneuver the maze and go straight to the chocolate without having to make any decisions.
The high brain activity was only present when the rat heard the click and when it reached its reward. A new habit had been formed and the rat didn’t have to think about what it was doing. Originally the rat was using its conscious mind to make decisions about which direction to take. Once the habit was formed it had become programmed in the subconscious mind.
The click was the cue or trigger to perform the habit. The spike in brain activity when it heard the click was due to the anticipation of reaching the reward. The spike in brain activity when it reached the chocolate was due to the pleasure it experienced.
So, before you can change a habit you first have to identify what the trigger and the reward are for that habit.
What Is the Trigger for Your Bad Habit?
Let’s use the following as an example: Do you find yourself eating something on your morning break that you know is not good for you?
If you do, what is the trigger? Is it because you’re hungry? Then your reward would be to feel satisfied. Is it because you feel tired? Then your reward would be a burst of energy? Is it because you are bored? Your reward would be a distraction.
Hunger is natural so you see food, eat food, feel satisfied, repeat. These steps are recorded in your memory bank and then a loop is established that you will repeat over again and again.
Once you identify the trigger, it’s not difficult to figure out what the reward is. When you decide to change a habit and you know what the trigger is you can choose to substitute the reward with something that is better for you.
In our example, you could choose to have a bottle of water or a cup of tea to feel satisfied. Or you could take a short brisk walk for a burst of energy. You could even have a chat with a colleague for distraction.
What Does It Take to Change A Habit?
It takes discipline to change a habit, but it is doable. That is, it’s doable until something happens that causes you to feel overly stressed or overwhelmed.
You could feel mad or sad and remember, oh yeah, when I ate that food I felt good, so that’s what I’ll do to feel better now. It’s a different trigger (an emotional signal instead of a hunger signal), but the reward is the same. Since you’re eating because you feel bad, not because you’re hungry, you might have a tendency to reach for comfort foods.
Lots of times, this will result in a relapse back to the old behavior. The prefrontal cortex (the newest part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective) knows when something is not good for you and tries to stop the behavior. But when you are stressed, that is the first part of the brain that gets derailed. All of us have a natural inclination to do things that we know aren’t going to be helpful when we are stressed.
External Motivation vs. Internal Motivation
One point that is significant to make here is the importance of understanding the difference between external motivation and internal motivation to change a habit.
You might experience external motivation from other people who tell you that you need to change. But it might also come from comparing yourself to others. If you decide someone else is a better person or better off financially, etc. than you are and you decide to change a habit so you can be more like them, that is external motivation.
Internal motivation comes from identifying the benefits of changing a habit and how those new habits will improve your life. You have an internal desire to change because it’s what you genuinely want to do.
Internal motivation means you’re moving toward something wanted and external motivation means you are moving away from something unwanted. Internal motivation is much, much stronger than external motivation. If you are internally motivated it will be easier to change a habit and to stay on course if you begin to feel stressed. Don’t overlook the importance of this point.
10 Best Tips to Change Bad Habits
So, here we go with 10 tips to help you change bad habits:
- Begin with a small change. You’ve probably heard the question “How do you eat an elephant?” to which someone replied, “one bite at a time.” Take this approach to change habits. Don’t sabotage your efforts before you get started by beginning with something that is so big or drastic that you feel overwhelmed.
- Identify your trigger and reward based on what we have previously covered.
- Decide on a new reward that can be substituted for the one you want to change.
- Practice mindfulness by simply becoming consciously aware of the present moment so you can substitute that new reward when you are triggered.
- When possible, remove yourself from situations in which you are likely to be triggered until your new habit is firmly established.
- Stop for a minute and congratulate yourself every time you successfully substitute a new reward for the old one. Be proud of your successes even though they may seem small.
- Make a list of benefits you will experience by changing this unwanted habit. You might even create a vision board with photos and images of what life would be like once you have formed the new habit. Stay focused on these benefits.
- Take at least 10 minutes every day to visualize the benefits you hope to experience. Sit quietly and take several deep breaths, close your eyes and relax. Visualize yourself having/doing/being whatever it is you will experience when you have changed this habit. Visualize this as if you are going through the motions, not as if you are watching yourself in a movie.
- As you visualize the benefits feel the feelings you would feel if you had already changed the habit and was experiencing the benefits.
- Don’t expect perfection. No one is perfect, so don’t expect to be the exception in all of humanity.
You will discover that with enough time and practice it is possible to change bad habits by using these tips. If you believe bad habits are sabotaging your success and you want to change them quickly, here is a quicker way to reprogram your subconscious mind.