You get home each day, drop your bags on the couch, grab a drink and plonk yourself down on the couch to relax. Soon, hours have passed, and you haven’t done anything productive. How does this keep happening?Habit formation is a process where behaviours become second nature.
For example, if you consciously thought about it, you probably wouldn’t be a couch potato for hours every night. But, if you repeat the activity over a long period, it becomes automatic behaviour. Actions you often repeat are most likely to become engrained in your brain and become habits. For example, over time, your brain may record that when you close the front door, you’re supposed to dump your bags and when you see the couch, it connects the dots that you should get a drink and sit down.Habits aren’t always bad though.
For example, if you feel the urge to lace up your gym shoes and go for a run after work, that’s a good habit.
Can you break a habit?
Some habits are mild habits, like not making your bed in the morning and others are strong and addictive, like drinking too much, watching porn or chain-smoking.
Habits are deeply wired in your brain, therefore, depending on how addictive they are, they can be hard to break. It becomes especially difficult to break a habit when pleasure or comfort is attached to it. For example, if you have a bad habit of drinking too much when you’re stressed, you’ll associate destressing with drinking. Like any pattern of behaviour though, habits can be broken with consistent effort.
Break the habit
1. Identify the behaviour
We all have bad habits. Start with the easiest ones. First, choose a specific habit you want to break. For example, it could be to stop eating junk food every evening. This could work because it’s concrete behaviour that could easily be changed over time.
2. Find the trigger
To find the pattern of behaviour, you need to identify the trigger first. Triggers can be emotional, situational or environmental. For example, if your trigger for eating junk food is emotional, you may be turning to food to destress after a tough day at work. If the trigger is situational or environmental, maybe you’re associating sitting on the couch and watching TV with having snacks. Once you find the trigger, link the activities together to find the pattern of behaviour. So if your trigger is seeing the couch, the pattern could be you watching TV on the couch and then eating snacks.
3. Deal with the triggers
Once you’ve found the pattern, it’s time to do something about the trigger. If the trigger for eating junk food every evening is because you’re stressed (emotional trigger), then find a different way to destress. For example, call a friend and vent about your day, try journaling or go to the gym for a release through exercise.
4. Make a substitute plan
Breaking a habit is difficult but replacing a bad habit with a good one can help. For example, when you come home from work, change your routine. Rather make dinner and eat with a loved one. Or if you live alone, eat your dinner in the dining room and then treat yourself to an hour of TV after you’ve eaten. In this way, you won’t be hungry so you’re less likely to snack while you watch TV.
5. Use an incentive
If pleasure is attached to a bad habit, it’s harder to ditch. Giving yourself an incentive can help though. For example, eating too much junk food like burgers, chips, sweets and savouries can lead to bad health. If you mentally tell yourself that junk food may cause you to become so unhealthy that you can’t run around with your kids or pet anymore, this creates an incentive for you to change and stick to it.
6. Give yourself a chance
Like most things, changing a habit won’t happen overnight. According to researchers, it takes about 21 days to change one and this varies. Set aside at least two months to work on changing a pattern. Repetition is important, so keep at it. If you’re struggling with an addictive habit like smoking or drinking, talk to your doctor or therapist for advice as you may need extra help. Replacing bad habits with good ones will improve your quality of life.