Do you have a habit you're ready to drop?
Do you have old unwanted habits that you want to drop? Maybe you have habits that you don’t even notice you do because they’ve become, well, habitual? Maybe you think habits are hard to drop or to change?
Can I point out, the hardest habit to change is the way you think.
What is a habit?
A habit is when you get into a fixed way of thinking, often unconsciously, acquired through repetition of something that you’ve done before. Research has found that 43% of daily behaviours are performed out of habit. These behaviours become imprinted in your neural pathways and can feel hard to break. Every time you perform the habit, you neurologically strengthen the neural pathway.
Habits form in three stages; the context cue, behavioural repetition and the reward. The context cue might be a time of day, think of your morning coffee or the nightly glass of wine. Location plays a part too, always having cake in a coffee shop or a biscuit in front of the TV. The behaviour is having the wine, cake or coffee and the reward is the feeling you get when you have the wine, cake or coffee.
What are habits made of?
When you’re in the grip of a habit, it doesn’t look as if your habit is made of thought but what else can it be? You don’t notice the thought because it’s a programme you run automatically. You have a thought to repeat the habit at a certain time, you don’t notice the thought and, because it’s programmed into your subconscious, it can feel as if you perform the habit robotically. But you’re not a robot.
The same with location, it might feel automatic that you order cake with your coffee if you meet a friend in a coffee shop and it might feel odd or even uncomfortable at first not to have the cake because this is something you always do. But, the habit has nothing to do with the location and all to do with your thoughts about the location.
Remember, you weren’t born with your habit, it’s something that you learned. And it’s something you can let go of.
Your habits aren’t fixed, how can they be? You aren’t a permanent personality, you change all the time. You’re not always angry or always shy, so why do you imagine that you have to take the same habitual actions every day? If you take the same actions every day, nothing changes. If you do the same thing, you’ll do the same thing.
Why do we start these habits?
The habit starts off looking like a solution, it makes you feel better. But, over time, the habit becomes a problem. Think about something you do that started as an occasional thing, maybe that nightly glass of wine or something sweet after a meal? But now you feel that you can’t do without the sweet treat or glass of wine. It almost feels like an addiction rather than a habit. And addiction can be both the stick and the carrot, as you feel that you have to do whatever it is to feel better.
You think that you need to indulge the habit to relieve the tension you feel without realising that it’s the habit that’s causing the tension. Addicts take crack or drink whisky to feel ‘normal’, and it’s the same whatever your habit is. You think about whatever it is you want and then you ‘try’ not to perform the habitual action straight away. But, because you don’t stop thinking about the thing, you unconsciously build the tension until you have to have whatever it is that you’re thinking about.
This can happen with cocaine or coca-cola. It’s the same if you get into the habit of thinking things are a struggle and will be difficult.
Let’s look at weight loss as an example. You might get into the habit of imagining that losing weight is going to be difficult. Once you start thinking of dropping weight as a sacrifice and a struggle, guess what? You start to believe it. You think that "It isn’t fair" that you can’t eat refined, processed foods, even though the rest of the world is eating this way. You might think that if you can’t eat these kinds of food then you can’t be the sociable, fun-loving creature that you are?
Eating the same food every day is a habit. There is nothing wrong with eating the same food if you are choosing it, but it’s important to recognise that you have a choice and you don’t have to eat a sandwich for lunch every day just because you always have.
If you take the same route to work every day and someone shows you a different route that shaves 10 minutes off of your travel time, do you thank them politely and continue to take the longer route just because you always have? Or do you chose the new route?
You may not be aware that you are eating habitually. The habit has become part of you in the same way your left knee is part of you. So, become aware and ask yourself if you think you eat habitually? Do you eat more than you need? Snack between meals? Look at the portion size you have. Do you always want something to eat around 3pm when you’re at work? But strangely, you don’t have the same habits at the weekend?
You can see that this has nothing to do with nutritional needs but everything to do with habit and patterns. Yes, you might have breakfast later in the day at the weekend and imagine that is the reason you’re not snacking at 3pm, but you’re probably also doing things that you find more interesting in your free time and not looking for something to break the monotony of your working day routine.
Habitual thinking becomes familiar and you like what is familiar, even when you know you could make better choices.
This keeps you repeating old, unwanted habits rather than stepping into the unknown and embracing new thoughts and new ways to do things. Habitual eating encourages habitual eating.
How to stop a habit
Almost every person has given up a habit at some time, whether it’s nail-biting or having sugar in their coffee. And no habit is more important than another. It can’t be. It’s all made of the same stuff - the energy that thought is made from. But, if you think that your habit is anything other than a habit of thinking, it’s possible that the habit might seem impossible to give up.
But, when you recognise that the habit is sparked by thought, you can see that you don’t have to follow the thought. After all, you don’t follow every thought you have. If you were in a shop and the person behind the till dropped something on the floor and left the till open while they bent down to pick it up, you might have the thought that you could lean over the counter and grab a handful of notes but you probably wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t feel obliged to follow that thought.
The trick to overcoming a habit is to notice the thought. Of course, you can’t really notice the thought because thoughts disappear in a nanosecond, but you will be able to notice the feeling that the thought provoked. The feeling that you want to eat chocolate because it’s 3pm or the feeling that you want to bite your nails. When you pause, you aren’t taking action habitually and new neural pathways can form and the habit of thinking in that way will be broken.