How to Break Bad Habits

A habit is a “superhighway” neural path that your brain has built to hand over control of repetitive tasks to your body so that it doesn’t have to, freeing your conscious mind up for other things.

Numerous cognitive neuroscientists have conducted studies that have revealed that only 5% of our cognitive activities (decisions, emotions, actions, behaviour) are conscious whereas the remaining 95% is generated in a non-conscious / subconscious manner.  (what's the difference between subconscious and un/non-conscious I hear you ask.... spelling!)

The conscious mind can think freely and create new ideas ‘out of the box’. The subconscious mind, which is basically a supercomputer loaded with a database of programmed behaviours, most of which we acquired before we reached the age of six.

The subconscious mind cannot move outside of its fixed programs – it automatically reacts to situations using stored behaviour responses. It works without the knowledge or control of the conscious mind.

Hence most of the time we are not aware of all the things our bodies are doing to make us breathe, pump the blood around our body engage the muscles needed to speak, walk or run. More importantly, this means that we are often unaware of many of our habits!

Think about how complicated it was when you first learnt to drive and how easy that is now. Just the other day I set off for work, got halfway there and then realised it was Sunday and I was supposed to be taking my kids to the leisure centre. I had been on complete autopilot not even aware of the journey I was making. This is your body in control.

If you are usually feeling hungry on the way home from work, and this always used to mean stopping at fuel station or supermarket and buying convenience food. Then you have preconditioned your body to take over as soon as you have feelings of hunger on the way home, and it will always stop even if you had told yourself that morning, that today was the day to your new diet.

 So if our habits are pre-programmed, and they are fixed then that's it right, we can't change?

Absolutely not. We can all break our bad habits if we choose to.

To change the habit you first have to recognise the symptoms and the triggers.

What bad habit are you trying to stop?

  • When does it usually occur? Is it a specific time, place or mood,  or with a certain person?
  • How do you feel just before it occurs?

Once you have identified the Symptoms and Triggers, now just spend a few days noticing yourself committing the ritual. Write it down in a diary, or tick a box, and notice the symptoms and triggers, are there any more to add to your list?

Now you can consciously Jump into the gap between the symptom/trigger and the action of the habit and say "STOP, Change this habit is not serving me"

This breaks down the superhighway connections.

Let's think of an analogy. The main highway/motorway you use to get to work always has a traffic jam on it and frequently an accident that blocks it up for hours on end. Choosing to travel that way to get to work just isn't serving you any more. So you need to find a new route. 

So now you have to choose to replace this superhighway with a new reaction/habit.

Remember just like it took time to learn the original habit it will take time to break it and change it.

Initially, you may not know the best alternative route. You may have to experiment with finding new ways to get to work. You may have to take some detours, occasionally get lost, or go a way that on paper looks very long. You may accidentally end up back on the blocked road.  

The same goes for re-programming yourself and your habits. 

It takes time, persistence, and planning.

Then finally, you have it. You have nailed down a route that works well, that gets you where you need to be, that you feel comfortable with.

You have your new habit. Yout new way of approaching the world

Now every time you repeat this new route/habit, you reaffirm the new you.

Keep at it, Congratulate yourself, stay positive and true as much as possible and over time it will become part of who you are.

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