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How to Break a Bad Habit

Whether it’s gross (biting your nails), guilt inducing (stress-eating) or just plain dangerous (smoking), bad habits do us no good. Unfortunately, they can be extremely difficult to break! We can help! We’re looking at how to recognize, be aware and change your bad habit starting today. (My nails can’t wait!)


What a Pattern Looks Like

Whether we like it or not, habits tend to form an indispensable part of our lives. Certain patterns (like smoking or mid-afternoon coffees) are more obvious, while others are more entrenched in our subconscious (for example, the type of people we are normally drawn to).

While many of us may end up blaming ourselves when we fail to break a bad habit, recent research has shown that it’s no easy task. A study conducted by Professor Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US revealed that a learnt pattern can remain in the brain for years, even after the behaviour has stopped.

In fact, all it takes for the dormant pattern to re-emerge is a stimulus from the old days. “It’s as though, somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,” Graybiel says. “This situation is familiar to anyone who’s trying to lose weight or control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.”

In other words, bad habits don’t die – they just hibernate.


Being Mindful of Your Actions

So, given that there’s a good reason behind why we reach for that third double-coated Tim Tam (c’mon, it’s chocolate) when we know we shouldn’t, are we eternally condemned to repeating the same mistakes?

Not necessarily, argues Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living. Harris points out that the ability to tune into your own thoughts and feelings when confronted with “habit cues” is the key to breaking free of any vicious cycle.

Harris teaches what’s known as “mindfulness” – a technique that involves paying close attention to our day-to-day actions with openness and focus. Instead of acting on our instincts, it involves pausing and asking ourselves what thoughts and feelings are going through our heads whenever we’re faced with powerful habit cues.

“Most of us function in an ‘auto-pilot’ state, with very little self awareness of why we’re doing what we’re doing. The greater our capacity for mindfulness – to notice our patterns and how we think, feel and behave – the more likely we are to self-correct and change what we do,” he says.


Keeping a Habit Journal

Harris believes that while we may only have limited control over our subconscious processes, what we do have is a huge amount of power over what actions we choose to take when those thoughts and feelings show up. In this sense, it’s important that we establish some long-term values that can help us stick to our goals when confronted with temptations.

Whether it’s skipping the gym or being attracted to the same type of men, our subconscious patterns tend to be well-established, seductive and comforting. Mark Stephens, motivation expert and author of Think Quit: Smoke Free Forever, suggests keeping a Habit Journal as a good starting point to conquer any self-defeating cycles.


Changing Your Thinking

“Both the mind and the body have a memory. Look at it this way: the mind creates the pictures and thoughts, while our body gets the feelings, smells and sounds,” says Stephens. “By keeping a journal, you’ll like be bringing an unconscious habit into your conscious awareness.”

Another way of regaining control is reversing our typical behavioural cycles. According to life coach and neuro-linguistic programming specialist Rebecca Wells, rather than letting a certain belief drive you (for example, “I always attract the wrong guys”), try to picture an outcome that you’d like, and work towards it.

“To change a [negative] cycle, decide on a positive result you want and then work backwards to ask yourself what behaviours are needed to get it,” recommends Wells. “Also, ask yourself what beliefs you’d need to hold about yourself to ensure that you’ll be behaving that way.”


Five Steps to Changing a Bad Habit:

  1. Identify the trigger for your negative cycle.

  2. Separate emotional response from action.

  3. Practice not acting on your urges for as long as you can.

  4. Use long-term goals and values to limit your bad habits – this will wean you off them.

  5. Be realistic accept your mistakes compassionately and start again (and again!).


If your bad habit has become addictive, read this.


By Candice Chung, Cleo, June 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

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