What are habits and how can we use them for permanent change?
A habit is an action that our brain has learned to perform in association with a certain situation. Read on to find out how we can use habits for permanent change.
If you are driving and about to turn left at a roundabout you switch on your indicator. You therefore, don’t have to think about it – you just do it. However, if one day, you get a new car and the indicators are on the opposite side of the steering wheel, you suddenly have to focus on what you are doing. You may keep accidentally turning on the wind-screen wipers instead of the indicators. Moving forward you use your new car a few times and your brain learns the new habit. Eventually you stop needing to concentrate on where the indicator control is and your new behaviour starts to happen automatically.
Our brains are essentially lazy so they love our habits as they don’t need much energy. Having habits therefore means that we can perform our daily routines quickly and efficiently. You know what it’s like when you are away from home – the light switch is in a different place, your washing kit and clothes are in a different place. Because of this your morning routine just takes very slightly longer.
Can habits be changed?
Just because we have a certain habit doesn’t mean we’re stuck with it forever. Our brains can also break habits if the situation changes. So, if you want to drive to the supermarket on the way home from work one day when you would normally drive straight home, you can do it, but it requires more thinking effort than usual.
To make a new habit you need to consciously decide to do something, and then consciously decide to do it again and again. The more frequently you repeat a behaviour the more likely it is to become automatic.
We can use our brain’s love for habits and ability to create habits to make it easier for us to improve our health.
How to use Habits for Permanent Change
Initially we will have to use our conscious decision making powers to do something new but we can help ourselves to do this:
- Telling ourselves that as we repeat our positive new behaviour our brain will be changing and creating new pathways, a habit will be forming. Therefore our hard work will therefore get easier.
- Building up our new habits in stages so they are achievable. This helps to prevent us falling at the first hurdle and feeling down about ourselves and our ability to change. For example, going for a 5 minute walk everyday is a great start to building a physical activity habit if you don’t usually do anything at all.
- Giving ourselves an incentive. For instance, you could decide if you go for a walk for 5 minutes at least 5 days a week for the next month and mark it on the calendar, you’ll buy yourself that new book, watch that film or maybe book a massage.
- Building in our new habits with current habits. Like leaving 10 minutes early to pick up the kids from school and adding in some extra walking.
- Thinking about the obstacles that might get in the way before we start. For example, trying to find your trainers in the pile of shoes at the bottom of the hall cupboard might put you off going for a walk so you may decide to leave them untied at the door.
- Picking up on obstacles as they arise. An example of this would be: “I didn’t enjoy my walk today because I went straight from work in my work shoes and my feet were sore, tomorrow I’ll take my trainers with me.”
- Making the new habit more interesting. You could save your favourite music or podcasts for your walk.
- Using accountability. This means making a commitment to changing your habit. It helps if you write down your plan or share it with someone else. For instance you could arrange to go on your walk with some one else who also wants to increase their physical activity. This makes you less likely to let each other down. You’ll provide each other with support and reminders.
Time to think…
Have a think about what new positive habit you could incorporate in your life. Get a pen and paper and go through the list above, think about each idea on the list and if you could use it in your habit building.