The Art of Breaking Bad Habits

You know you should stop chewing your nails, that you don’t get much done when you log onto Facebook and that eating fish and chips from the greasy deli is a really bad idea….but you still do these things anyway.

People usually persist with bad habits because they get some personal satisfaction or reward from engaging in the behaviour.

Let’s face it, bad habits are hard to break. Forming new, healthier habits can be even harder.

According to Dr Nora Volkow the human brain is hard wired to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that is delayed.

You have a choice: Eat the chocolate now or have a carrot instead?

For most of us, simply knowing that eating the carrot is going to eventually result in weight loss and feeling healthier usually won’t be enough to sway us. What we want is the immediate reward of sugary, delicious chocolate.

And the reason for this can be found in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is linked to pleasurable experiences and our perception of positive experiences. So every time you eat a piece of chocolate or a delicious slice of pizza this pleasure sensing chemical is released in the brain.

This dopamine hit acts like a reward to us and reinforces the activity and neural connection in the brain. It is for this reason that we often engage in behaviours in an automatic way without much conscious thought or effort.

The good news is that every day people are successful in changing their behaviour, whether it be foregoing a packet of cigarettes, running on the treadmill or cutting back on junk food. Change is possible.

But how can you effectively break a bad habit? Here are some suggestions from the experts.

Make the behaviour impossible

Researcher Wander Jager believes that the best way to change a habit is to make it impossible. She states “..closing the shopping centre of a town for car traffic can break the habit of shopping by car, and changing the menu of a canteen may break the unhealthy lunching habit”.

I saw this technique used on a group of people suffering from type 1 and 2 diabetes in the documentary, “Simply Raw”. Six individuals were selected to undergo an experiment to see if they could be off their medication and insulin by cutting out fast food and adopting a completely raw food diet over the period of 30 days. To achieve this, they were sent to a retreat in the middle of the Arizona desert (far away from shops and fast food outlets) and served only raw vegan foods.

The thing about this strategy is it doesn’t always work and can sometimes backfire. In the documentary it was interesting to observe one participant became strongly resistant and rebelled against the approach by hitchhiking across the Mexican border to get alcohol and buy Mexican food.

Change and control your environment

The next best and probably the most practical thing you can do to break a bad habit is to change your environment so that the bad habit is less likely to be automatically performed.

The question to ask is – What is it in my environment that is triggering the behaviour (i.e. bad habit)?

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight it doesn’t make sense to have chocolates in your home or office at work.

You see, humans have a certain amount of will power that they have to expend throughout the day. In our low moments, particularly when we are tired and/or stressed or it is later in the day, our ability to regulate our behaviour and emotions significantly decreases.

And it’s in those moments when our will power reserves are running low or on empty that we are most likely to give into the temptation and reach for a chocolate. Therefore, you want to eliminate anything in your environment that will set you back.

Have your environment work for you by creating healthy habit back up plans. For instance, if you’re trying to eat healthier foods, have some chopped up vegetables and freshly washed fruit on standby for those low moments when a junk food craving hits.

Establish a regular routine

This involves getting clear on what it is that you want to do and then doing it over and over and over at a set time or place. Easier said than done, right?

Well, yes and no.

Peter Gollwitzer is an expert on how to make actions automatic and a regular part of one’s routine. His research shows that to make a particular behaviour automatic you must start by selecting the desired behaviour that you want to adopt (e.g. eating more vegetables and doing more physical exercise) and then link this behaviour to a specific situation such as a particular time, place or feeling.

He states –

“The mental act of linking a specific situation to an intended behaviour in the form of an if-then plan leads to automatic action initiation…[the action] does not require conscious intent once the critical situation is encountered”.

So let’s say your desired behaviour is to eat more vegetables. This behaviour could be linked to one of several things – particular meal times (e.g. dinner and morning tea), when at a restaurant browsing over the menu or if a hunger pang hits.

An example of an if-then plan could be as follows – “If it is morning tea, then I will eat a carrot”.

I know, it sounds incredibly simple and straightforward, but the act of committing to this takes the need for any conscious thought and effort out of the equation. The behaviour does indeed become automatic.

Final Thoughts

Bad habits can be hard to break, but there are clear and effective strategies to help you adopt healthier behaviours. By making the habit impossible to engage in, changing your environment and establishing a regular routine through ‘if-then’ plans, it is possible to rewire your brain for the better.

Have you succesfully broken a bad habit? If so, what was it and how did you do it?