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Habits. We tend to think of them only as the behaviours we want to change – especially our food and exercise habits!

Really, a habit is any chunk of thought or behaviour that occurs on autopilot in response to a particular cue.

You notice them most when something interrupts them – like when I moved the rubbish bin, and found myself walking towards its old position even though the new position was back where I’d started.

Now that sounds like a habit – but I wouldn’t previously have said I had a habitual way of throwing out cat food sachets!

By definition, habits are learned through repetition and are hard to break once formed. This is because the habitual thought or action has been settled into our brain cells by our repeated behaviours.

Our brains are ‘plastic’ – the brain cells (neurons) that are repeatedly used as a group to perform a chunk of actions will ‘wire together’ as a chunk of brain activity. Mostly this makes our lives easier, letting us get on with mundane tasks without constantly making decisions – what will I do with this empty cat food sachet? Upstairs bin, downstairs bin, straight to the wheelie bin? Should I wash it? Far easier to have that wired-together group of brain cells complete that task on autopilot.

But sometimes a habit is not beneficial, and we want to change it… except that often, at the same time, we kinda don’t want to change it.

You can use the plasticity of your brain to rewire a habit.

Pretty much all of the habit change gurus have systems based on this neuroscience. They write whole books on it; one blog post can only offer a brief outline.

In a nutshell, a habit is composed of four Rs – Reminder (the cue or trigger), Routine (the chunk of thought or action), Reward (the benefit or positive feeling) and Repetition (repeating until it’s wired into the brain cells).

To change a habit you need to identify the trigger – perhaps a location, or an emotion. If you can eliminate the trigger, you can probably eliminate the habit. Usually it isn’t that simple, so you need to replace the Routine with a new action. This works much better than just trying to tell yourself ‘don’t do it’.

The reward stage is a little tricky, as it’s not really the gift-yourself-a-massage type of reward – although that can help too. Think more about how it will make you feel. Your old habit didn’t buy you a massage – what did it give you?

Finally and very importantly, you must repeat the new behaviour so that it can wire in to your brain.

Don’t expect this to be a perfect process – the old wiring is still there under the new wiring, and it can still be triggered. Accept that as a part of rewiring a habit. You almost certainly WILL have a relapse. That’s how it works. But the longer you keep repeating the new habit, the more strongly it overwhelms the old wiring.

Habit Change Gurus

As I mentioned, there are experts producing a wealth of advice on habit change. Here are some that came recommended in a neuroscience course I attended.

James Clear: I really like this site, because he has tonnes of articles online and you can learn heaps without buying anything.  - scroll down past the book description (although that is recommended too) to find links to online articles. Some might call them blog posts, but not James! My favourite so far is the idea that focusing on who you are works better than focusing on what you do - I swear I don’t have a deal with him, I just think he makes a lot of sense

Immunity to Change is a theory you can check out here

WOOP is a system called explained here

At heart, they all come back to rewiring the neurons – but different styles suit different people. Look around to find a theory or system that resonates with you.

A Few Habit Facts:

  • There is no exact time frame to break or create a habit. 20 days was the minimum found in an intensive study – the average was 84 days, but the individual results ranged up to 254 days for a habit to become wired in to ‘autopilot’ stage.

  • Old habits never die – they can be buried but they can resurface (zombies!). Be kind to yourself (or others) and keep working on the new behaviour.

  • Moving house or changing jobs can be huge opportunities to change habits, because old triggers have been left behind.

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