Habits are everywhere, from the moment you wake up and reach for your phone, to the moment you put on your coat when you leave the office at night. You don't need to think about them, they just happen. If we didn't have habits, our daily lives would slow to a snail's pace, as we actively stopped to think about what decision to make at every possible juncture of our day - we'd also be cream crackered (tired, for those unfamiliar with Cockney rhyming slang) by the metabolic implications of all that decision making - after all, our brain uses energy to think. But not all habits are useful or even desirable, we somehow just pick them up along the way: Elevenses, coffee and cake at three, smoking, getting smashed on a Friday, biting your nails. Sometimes, we make a resolution to stop a habit which we no longer like, but old habits die hard, really hard.
The reason habits can be so hard to break, is precisely because they are exactly that: a habit - something which our brain has learned over a period of time, along with the corresponding reward(s) intrinsically linked to it. Habits are, essentially, behaviours that reveal to be rewarding so many times that they eventually become the standard response to similar circumstances. In fact, habits are often maintained even when they cease to be adaptive. This is in contrast to goal-directed behaviours, which are dependent on immediate rewards that can be abandoned as soon as the environment changes. I don't plan to get into the neuroscience in any great detail, but suffice to say that repeating something over and over again ensures that the neural pathways linked to that habit become the default option in similar circumstances. That's great if you have developed a number of good habits, but we can probably all admit to harbouring a few not so good ones, which we'd like to ditch (eating too many sugary treats, not exercising enough and constantly fiddling with our smartphone, to name just a few).
With 2017 only a few weeks away, you may well be scrambling around trying to come up with yet another new year's resolution. A resolution that you're destined to ditch, just as soon as you can say "I tried my best, but it just didn't work out"; whether it was a new exercise regime, diet, hobby, giving up smoking or perhaps not drinking quite so much/regularly. Whilst we often have the best intentions, we generally approach new year's resolutions in completely the wrong way, which is why so many of us end up feeling frustrated, annoyed or just plain useless for failing to stick to something which we know would have been good for us in the long run.
According to research, 80-90% of New Year's resolutions fail. It is fair to say that when we make new year's resolutions, whilst the resolutions themselves are (generally) good, the implementation of those resolutions is often ill thought through. Sure, the goal may seem bold and inspiring, but unless the approach is right, it will soon become far fetched and unachievable. It takes time to form a new habit - an average of 66 days, according to research conducted by Phillippa Lally at University College London in 2009, which built on an observation from Maxwell Maltz in the 1950's, who observed that it took a minimum of 21 days for plastic surgery patients to adapt to their new faces (something which you may be familiar with, if you have ever had a wisdom tooth removed and noticed the time it took for the gaping hole left behind to feel "normal"). If you intend to use will-power alone to get through the first 66 days, it could be a long schlep, which will see all but the most stubborn individuals crash and burn. A Cancer Research statistic found that someone who utilises a combination of social support and medication to help quit smoking is 225% more likely to quit for good, compared to someone going cold turkey and relying on willpower alone to see them through.
If you want to break a bad habit and replace it with a new one, you first need to understand that the neural pathway(s) in your brain, linked to the bad habit, will likely always be there - once you form a strong neural pathway, that pathway is there to stay - you can't simply delete it (as much as you might like to), although the connections may get weaker over time if you don't use it. It is the very reason we can sometimes regress into old habits. Therefore, to "break" an old habit, you need to create a new habit (and corresponding set of neural pathways) that your brain favours over the old habit. To do that, you will need to understand what triggers the bad habit in the first place and why. Researchers have identified three key things, which form the basis of a habit: (i) Trigger, (ii) Routine, (iii) Reward. Essentially, there will be something such as a particular location, time, emotional state, person or certain action (the trigger) which will prompt a habit (routine) to happen, which will result in a reward of some description. The reward might be a sugar high, lower stress or social interaction. It's not always obvious what the reward you are actually craving is (even if you think it is), so it can be useful to keep a diary to track the habit over the course of a week or two to pinpoint this.
With smoking, for example, aside from any addiction to nicotine etc, you'll also have "happy" emotions tied to the experience, such as feelings of calm and relaxation (the reward) that effectively lower your perceived levels of stress. Therefore, it may be that whenever you are feeling stressed (which is the trigger i.e. your emotional state), the default setting is to pick up a cigarette (the routine), because your brain links smoking to feeling calmer and reducing stress (the reward). To break the habit, aside from breaking any biological addition to nicotine, you will need to create a new healthier habit to replace the old one. Practising mindfulness (or going for a walk), for example, might enable you to revert to focussed breathing exercises rather than grasping for the nearest cigarette, when you feel stressed to lower to stress levels. Going cold turkey alone won't work, because you will be craving something to lower those same feelings of stress when they arise. Needless to say, trying to instill a new habit, whilst battling to all but ignore an old one, isn't easy and takes time, which is why you need to have a plan. As highlighted by Cancer Research and many other scientific studies, going cold turkey and relying on willpower alone is not the answer. Conversely, jumping in at the deep end with a new habit won't have a high success rate either.
Essentially you need to work with (and not against) the lump of grey and white matter nestled between your ears. We all need habits, they stop us from decision-making overload, by enabling us to work on auto-pilot roughly 40% of the time. Habits free up our brain to focus on the important stuff. It's when those auto-pilots are unhelpful or detract from what you are actually seeking to achieve, that you may wish to consider rewiring your brain to form new, healthier and/or more productive habits.
Next week, we'll be publishing our 9 top tips on just how you can go about making a new habit stick. If you can't wait that long, drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and we can send you a copy of the full article.