Take control of your habits

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution this year? Maybe you pledged to do more exercise? Eat less chocolate? Learn another language? We may not be very far into 2022 but many people will have already given up on the goals they set at the start of January. As creatures of habit, we tend to find it difficult to make fundamental changes to our lives. But it is possible! Are you ready to turn failure into success with our life hacks?

Woman with strained facial expression in the plank position

Routine makes us feel safe

This starts at a very young age – just think of children who ask for the same bedtime story over and over again and expect it to be told in exactly the same way every time. If we want to pick up a new skill, we have to repeat, repeat, repeat and form habits. This is something we see in language learning. When we’re using language to communicate, there’s a lot that comes naturally to us. Without having to worry about the technicalities like vocabulary, pronunciation, syntax and grammar, we’re free to focus on the message we want to convey.

Our everyday habits save us from having to make all kinds of trivial decisions day in, day out. Should I put my right or left leg into my trousers first? Should I brush my teeth before I go to bed? We aren’t faced with these questions every day because the answers are already programmed into our brains in the form of habits. And we can focus our rational thinking on more important matters.

So it would seem that we are not quite as in control over our actions as we might like to believe. “We make as few conscious decisions as possible,” says Bas Verplanken, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bath. “Our brain resists doing so because it uses energy.” Verplanken estimates that habits take care of 30 to 50% of the decisions we need to make every day. This is good news provided that those habits are in sync with our goals. They could even save our lives in some scenarios like when we’re driving a car. But what about all those bad habits that eat up our time, drain us of our energy and sometimes even damage our health? Let’s take a look at a few things you can do to successfully stick to your New Year’s Resolutions...

1. Walk your habits slowly down the stairs

We can’t help the fact that habits override our rational thoughts, making it difficult to implement positive changes. If you simply make the conscious decision to give up chocolate now and forever, you are not likely to be successful in sticking to it. In the words of Mark Twain: “You can’t break a bad habit by throwing it out the window. You’ve got to walk it slowly down the stairs.”

The first step on the path to changing a habit is becoming aware of its cue and making some careful observations. Habits always follow the same pattern:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

2. Avoid the trigger

Here’s a straightforward example: When I open the internet browser on my laptop, I see the latest news right there on the homepage. That’s the cue that triggers my habit to scroll through the news stories on all kinds of websites. The reward? I feel as though I’ve caught up with what’s going on in the world and I’m ready to chat to others about the day’s top stories.

The problem is that I can get drawn into this habit of mine too often, for too long or at the least opportune moments. Sometimes I find that the reward I’m getting is the distraction from what I’m actually supposed to be doing. Now that I’ve realised all this, I’m in a position to make a change. In this example, I need to remove the cue by changing my browser settings. “Habits are little cravings,” says Wolfram Schultz, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “Once we realise that a particular action is going to be rewarded, we repeat it as often as we can.” By changing the browser settings, I can cut off my ‘dealer’ so I don’t have to face being tempted every time I open up my browser.

The comparison with addiction is more than just a metaphor here. Habits have the same impact as addictive substances on the physical structure of our brain. “Rewards create a neuronal urge and change the brain,” says Schultz. That’s what makes habits so powerful.

3. Take one step at a time

If it’s not possible to avoid the cue altogether, you may be able to consciously associate it with a different kind of behaviour. Imagine you have the choice between walking up the stairs and taking the lift or escalator. As long as you’ve identified a cue here, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to choose the stairs. Make sure that you don’t commit to only ever choosing the stairs for all eternity. You don’t want to set yourself impossible goals. For now, you’re choosing to go up this one set of stairs. That can’t be too difficult, right? Worried that the stairs are too steep or too high? Channel your inner Mark Twain and take it slow. One step at a time.

4. Stay positive

When people are trying to break a bad habit, they often set themselves a negative goal, which our brains naturally struggle with. If you decide to stop eating fast food, what’s the reward? You’ll find your goal setting works much better if you keep things positive. Commit to eating healthier food for a week instead. That way, you’ll be able to be proactive and plan meals, go grocery shopping and try out new recipes. And if your culinary creations end up tasting delicious, you’ve taken care of your reward too.

5. Change your habit

Let’s imagine your sleep is poor and you’re not getting enough of it because you’re spending hours scrolling through social media before bed. In this example, you obviously can’t remove the cue. You have to go to bed at some point! But you could try changing up your routine by taking a closer look at the reward associated with the habit. Perhaps using social media is your way of staying in touch and feeling connected to others? If so, you could always chat to a friend or colleague on the phone instead. You’ll feel so much better afterwards and your eyes will have a break from the blue light on the screen, leaving you to drift gently into the land of nod. Do this on a regular basis and you’ll have reconnected with loads of friends you haven’t spoken to properly in ages. Hello new habit!

6. Be kind to yourself

Go easy on yourself if you don’t manage to change a habit right away. Just remember that habits are deep rooted and we are physically and psychologically conditioned to form habits and stick to them. One of the reasons why New Year’s Resolutions tend to be so short lived is that we are not able to deal with failure. The goals we set ourselves are a distant memory by the end of January and we feel angry with ourselves come the middle of February because we’ve messed up again.

We are creatures of habit, so it’s normal to find ourselves gradually reverting back to our old ways. But don’t give up. Keep making progress and overcome the minor setbacks along the way. Then, by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around again, you’ll be able to give yourself a pat on the back and come up with another set of exciting new habits to adopt in the new year.

Have you found these tips helpful? How have you managed your habits in the past? Have you found a method that works for you? Let us know in the comments or send us an email to freelance@apostrophgroup.ch.

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