We can all probably think of a habit or two we wish to change. Maybe that’s biting your nails, or snacking when you’re bored. Perhaps you smoke when you’re stressed, or get road rage in traffic. And while you know you’d be better off without them, habits can be so ingrained in our brains that breaking them can seem almost impossible.
So what do we do? Is there a way to change the habits that don’t serve us anymore?
The simple answer is yes. While there’s no specific set of steps that’s guaranteed to work for each and every one of us, there is one method that’s been shown to be highly successful in changing bad habits – and that’s by reprogramming the patterns that are already encoded inside your head.
Here’s a simple breakdown of what you need to know to take control of your habits and finally force those negative tendencies into the background, once and for all.
The Golden Rule of habit change
Habits are born out of a three-step process called the Habit Loop, which consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. A simple system, this cycle is so effective at creating habits that, once established, they become deeply ingrained into the structures of your brain and begin to occur without your conscious involvement.
While this is helpful in cases where the habit is positive, the problem lies in the fact that your brain can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. Just like good habits, bad routines can encode themselves into your brain and, once this occurs, they can be incredibly hard to turn off.
Luckily there is a way affect permanent change to these negative cycles. Though a habit cannot be eradicated, it can be replaced – and that’s by implementing the Golden Rule of habit change.
The Golden Rule suggests that, to change a bad habit, you must:
Use the same cue.
Provide the same reward.
Change the routine.
Rather than trying to turn off the whole system, this formula aims to replace just the middle stage of the cycle (the routine) while keeping the rest of the system intact. Studies have shown that substituting a bad habit with a healthier alternative is among the most powerful tools for habit change because of it’s focus on piggy-backing on a loop that’s already been programmed to work. This takes less effort than trying to change the whole system and enhances your chances of successful behaviour change.
The 4 steps of breaking bad habits
To effectively break a bad habit, you first have to understand the components that are making up the loop – the cue, the routine and the reward. By identifying each of these pieces, you can better understand what role the habit is playing in your life and find a new, healthier routine that can provide the same outcome.
Step 1: Identify the habit you want to change
Thinking that you want to change “bad habits” isn’t quite enough, you need to know specifically which behaviours you’d like to change.
Think of this less in terms of the large adjustments you want to make in your life (like “eat healthier” or “be more active”), and more in terms of the specific, doable behaviours that are currently stopping you from reaching those goals (like “stop snacking before bed” or “stop binge watching Netflix every night and go to the gym instead”).
In other words, go in knowing precisely what you’re going to work on.
Step 2: Bring awareness to the cue and craving
Most people have habits that have occurred for so long that they no longer recognize the cues and cravings that are driving them. In order to understand this better, think about the moments leading up to your habit. What do you feel right before you complete the routine? What triggers the habitual behaviour?
To help you do this, try carrying around an index card and a pen. Each time you feel a craving to perform the habit, make a check mark on the card and think about your location, time, emotional state, other people present and preceding action. By actively noting each occurrence, you slowly become more aware of the sensations that are leading up to the habit and can better understand the driving forces behind the behaviour.
Step 3: Recognize the reward
This stage takes a little more work to understand but is highly important. Why do you do the routine? What do you get out of it?
Many undesirable habits have a built-in reward system that requires little or no input from you. Eating a handful of chips or smoking a cigarette are such easy habits to adopt because they flood your brain with pleasure chemicals like dopamine. These substances provide a natural reward for your brain and encourage continued usage even though they are detrimental to your overall health and wellbeing.
Think hard about the reward you’re getting from your habit. When you snack at work, is it to satisfy hunger or to interrupt boredom? When you watch TV at night, is it because you’re interested in the show or because you’re looking for stimulation?
Once you understand what you’re getting out of the cycle, you can better prep yourself for the next section: replacing the routine.
Step 4: Generate a competing response
This stage is where it all comes together. What is a healthier behaviour you can engage in when you encounter the old trigger that will provide you with a familiar reward?
Let’s say you usually snack on a donut every time you pass the kitchen (which gives you a boost of energy). Could snacking on an apple give you the same response? The location-based cue remains the same (the kitchen), the neurochemical reward is similar (the energy), but the apple is a far healthier alternative to consume as a regular snack over the donut.
Same cue, same reward, different routine.
The last step: solidifying the change
Once you’ve successfully interrupted a habit loop, it can seem like you’ve eradicated the bad behaviour for good. And this may be the case when life is running smoothly, but remember: old habits tend to live dormant beneath the surface. When life changes or critical moments arise, it can create a perfect storm for us to revert back to our old habits unless we add one key ingredient: belief.
To make any permanent alteration to our behaviour, we have to believe that real, lasting change is feasible. We have to believe that things can (and will) get better, and that we can cope with stress without falling back on our old routines. And what’s the best way to do that? By seeing real change happen to real people in our community.
By committing to change as a part of a group and by surrounding ourselves with other people who are there to support us and keep showing us that we can do it, our odds of success go up dramatically – even if that community is only as large as two people.
The process of habit change may be easily described, but it’s not always as easy to accomplish. Routines that are deeply encoded in our brains can take real, deliberate effort to change but, by understanding the cues, cravings, and rewards that drive our behaviours, and by firmly believing that we can make real change in our lives, we’re far closer to changing those patterns and moving closer toward the life we want to live.