How to change Habits

Breaking old ingrained habits can seem daunting and every year therapists see a stream of clients who are down hearted because they failed to keep their New Year resolutions. Unable to reach their goal, the clients seek help to stop smoking, loose weight, focus and get fit. Have you ever set out in January full of determination to break old habits, yet somewhere along the way your will power gets pushed aside and in a moment of weakness the unwanted behaviour creeps in?

If this sounds familiar you will be pleased to know that you can make sure that 2013 is the year that you get the inside knowledge of how to change a habit easily and for good.

Why is it so hard to stick to a resolution long term? A big reason for millions of people not making the changes they so want is because so much of our behaviour is automatic. The problem? Psychologist Jeremy Dean, citing a study in which 60% of resolvers admitted they’d failed to make a change last for six months. “Of the 40% that claimed they’d succeeded, a good percentage was probably lying. I’ve seen people break resolutions in minutes.”

Dean goes on to say habits are so difficult to break because most of our behaviour is automatic, like programmed software running in our unconscious. “If we didn’t learn to do things automatically, life would be exhausting,” he says. ‘We’d have to actively decide which side of bed to get up on, whether to put on slippers, whether to have coffee or tea. All of these behaviors occur seamlessly throughout the day, so we can focus on higher-level decisions.’

In order to break a bad habit or establish a new one, Dean believes it’s critical to understand your brain’s processing system and work with it rather than against it. And, unfortunately, it will likely take longer than you’d expect. Although many experts insist that it takes only three weeks to make a behavior routine, research shows that in reality it’s highly variable and depends on your personality and the difficulty of the task. ‘Quitting smoking or creating a new exercise routine may take six months to a year.’ Dean says.

 So how can you best make sure that your New Years resolutions will stand the best chance of succeeding? Start with asking yourself a few questions:-

Have you made your resolution SMART ?

Is your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and do you need to put some timings on what you have to do in order to achieve it? Setting a goal of loosing 10kg in two months, or going to the gym three nights may not be possible in reality. Likewise you might feel that something is really what you want but if you had it would it really make you happy or bring feelings of accomplishment?

Now set time aside to think through

  • What is the driving force behind your goal? Are you doing it for yourself or someone else? You stand a better chance of achieving your goal if it is something that evokes meaning and positive emotion in you.
  • How will your life look when you achieve your goal? Take a moment to relax and imagine what life would be like when you have got what you think you want. Imagine getting up in the morning and go through a whole day – how are you feeling? Notice the changes in you and what a day in life of that future you might look like.
  • Research how you can best achieve your goal. There are many ways to loose weight and get fit. You may think that you know how to but if you have tried your method before and struggled – there is a strong possibility that method will not be successful a second time.

Now ask yourself and make notes on

  • Is it what you really want? When you really look at what that future would be like minute to minute with the desired changes, that desire for the goal can sometimes change.
  • Does the habit bring you anything good? For instance if you take time out to smoke and you get some thinking time, a break from the chores or intensity of work. Then factor breaks in to your daily routine.
  • Habits tend to be dependant on the environment or feelings that you have. So you will have a drink and want a cigarette even though you have not thought of smoking for hours. Likewise, feeling sad or lonely can stimulate an old habit of over eating. So try to change your routine or get help to change the negative emotions that stop you from breaking the habit.
  • How are these changes going to affect others around you? Do I need to get them involved too? It might be a goal that your whole family or a friend can join in too.
  • Do you need any help in achieving your goal? Additional skills, knowledge or support, if put in place now can make all the difference. Would the process be easier if you had a buddy coach or mentor to check in with on a regular basis? Some goals can be so easily achieved with some help.
  • And are there any gaps in your knowledge that might let you down? If you wanted to get promotion at work there might be something you can do to help that. So rather than sit back while others get the promotion, get active and sign up for that language or accounting course.
  • What else may stand in your way of getting what you want? How can you minimize the impact or remove these potential barriers? For instance when do you do the behaviour more?
  • How will you measure success? In the case of loosing weight if you concentrate on just the pounds on the pounds you loose it may be a roller coaster of emotion. It may suit you more to look at the shape you are or what you can get into.
  • Can you put in some rewards along the way?
  • What are the new habits? If you stop eating processed food, what are you planning to eat? If you spend a lot of time playing X-box then what will be in its place?
  • Are the results going to be worth the effort?

Now you can start planning
Once you have the answers to the above you can start planning the action steps that lead to your goal. You need to write down the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. From making a phone call to research write down each step you need to take and when you can action it. Remember to keep it SMART.

Rehearse your future
Studies show that if you visualize achieving your goals, the steps along the way and how life will be in the future. You are more likely to achieve those goals. Here are two ways to rehearse the future.

Make a dream board: OK so that may sound a little weird but I can’t think of another name for it. Get a large piece of card and some glue. Over the coming weeks when you see a picture that makes you feel how you want to feel in the future when you have achieved your goal, cut it out and stick it on your board. Spend a couple of minutes every day to look at those pictures and enjoy the feelings.

Practice imagining the new habits you need to accomplish your goals. If you imagine or expect to fail – you might well prove yourself right so make sure that imaginary journey is a positive one!

‘What fires together, wires together.’ Maybe a cliche but thats exactly what the brain does. So the more you practise a new behaviour the more the brain starts to form new neural circuits that gradually make that behaviour automatic.

Enjoy the journey! 
When you place all of your attention on the end result of a goal, life can pass you by without enjoying the day. So prepare for the journey towards your new year resolutions, as it will increase your confidence and likelihood of getting to your goal. You will be able to relax and enjoy the journey knowing everything you need is in place to ensure you get to your destination.

Jill Wootton (47 Posts)