Wondering how you can ditch a bad habit in a way that will actually last? Author and consultant Gary Waldon explains how to hack the life cycle of your habits to create lasting change once and for all.
We are all addicts – addicted to the habits and routines in our lives. We wake up at the same time, have our normal morning routine (shower, breakfast, brushing teeth), then head off to work at the same time every weekday. Somewhere in this routine, we will feed our addictions.
We may be addicted to substances such as sugar, nicotine, weed, coke or coca cola, ice or alcohol, or we may be addicted to behaviours such as watching pornography, sex, eating, gambling or checking our phone every 60 seconds.
Even our thought patterns can become habits – the voice in our head becoming ‘addicted’ to negative thoughts and self-doubt as it tries to avoid us feeling like a failure.
In my experience transforming organisations and people, I’ve identified five common stages of habits.
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The life cycle of a habit
Every habit is kick started by a trigger. Triggers could include emotional pain, boredom, stressors or anxiety, or external events that grab our attention such as smells, sounds or interactions with people.
Triggers often lead to cravings, which may get stuck in our heads once activated – such as a need for chocolate. However, cravings may not be about the substance or activity itself, such as nicotine, weed or sex, but the resulting feelings of calm, pleasure or even relief from emotional pain.
To satisfy these cravings we might respond with the relevant routine or automatic action we use in response to the trigger. Examples of routines include having a smoke, taking drugs, indulging in sex, turning into an emotional zombie or getting drunk.
Our routines will become firmly embedded in our minds if we continually receive rewards from them. These internal or intrinsic rewards include positive feelings of pleasure or possibly even relief from emotional or physical pain which triggers the release of oxytocin, a powerful and addictive hormone that reinforces how much we enjoyed the routine.
The problem with oxytocin is that the more we get the less effect it has on us over time. As a result, we may quickly end up in search of our next ‘hit’.
Following the reward, we often reflect on our feelings resulting from indulging in our routines. Depending on whether it’s a good or a bad habit our reflections may include savouring feelings of pleasure and relief or potentially feeling guilty and remorseful if our actions conflict with our values and beliefs.
It’s the power of these reflections that will eventually become the catalyst for us to break our habits.
Breaking bad habits
The best way to break a bad habit is to replace one routine with a different one that avoids the undesirable consequences but still gives us the reward. In life, triggers will keep happening and our cravings will drive us to do our routines as our minds look for their rewards. Routines are really the only part of habits that are within our control to change.
To break bad habits, try the following steps:
Identify the habit you want to change
Don’t try to change the world all at once. Instead, choose one habit that really matters – such as quitting emotional eating, smoking or negative thoughts.
Review your triggers
Before you can change your routines, you first need to recognise your triggers. Is it when you get stressed that you start your negative self-talk, or when you are having a drink that you start to crave a smoke?
Know the reward you’re really getting
Is it truly a positive reward? As a boredom eater I often crave a sugar hit when I get bored. The reward is my mind is stimulated from the routine of getting up from my desk in search of treats. Going for a walk and avoiding the sugar would be just as effective in reducing my boredom.
Change your routine
Create a replacement routine that works better for you, but still delivers similar rewards. Recovering alcoholics leverage their support network when feeling vulnerable, and will use the number of days without a drink as a reward so they know what they are giving up by having a drink.
Use your reflection period to rebuild your resolve
New habits take time to create and our minds need to know we’re still getting rewarded from the new routine. We often go through a period of adjustment where we may be attracted back to our old ways and even fall off the wagon completely. To leverage the power of our reflections we should include planning what we will do if we fail.
For many of us, when we believe we’ve failed, we take an approach of, “well, screw it, what does it matter” and let ourselves go completely. Planning for potential failure makes it easier to pick ourselves up and continue in our new habit if it does happen.
Gary Waldon is the author of Sort Your Sh!t Out. He is a business transformation consultant who works with people at all levels from CEOs, business leaders and professional athletes through to teachers and retirees. Find out more at www.sortyourshitoutbook.com.
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