Habits – Part II: How to Create or Break a Habit
For a more in-depth explanation on why we have habits, and the three part mechanism that creates habits, read the previous article.
How to Create a New Habit
First, Define the Habit.
When you choose a habit to create, it’s easy to want to aim high. But to make a habit attainable, it’s a good idea to start small.
A big habit is likely to be a huge shift for you, and therefore easily broken. Small habits, on the other hand, are much more likely to lead to success. And small habits will eventually add up to a big habit that sticks.
So instead of choosing a big habit like “I want to eat only healthy food,” choose something more specific to begin. Deciding that you will eat at least one green vegetable with ever meal is a much more manageable goal that you can easily incorporate into your daily life.
Setting small goals has added benefits.
By aiming for this sort of specific, attainable goal, you’ll know when you’ve succeeded, so you’ll feel unquestionably successful. You’ll also feel really proud of yourself, which will fuel your desire to continue on your new path. Lastly, a small specific habit will be more likely stick when life gets tough and throws distractions your way.
Figure Out the Best Stimulus.
You can choose either a stimulus that is already present in your life, like a mealtime, or you can create an artificial stimulus, like setting an alarm.
For example, if you want to take a daily vitamin and fish-oil supplement, you might choose sitting down for breakfast as your stimulus. Or if you want to start a morning yoga routine, the alarm would be the stimulus. You might also want to meditate for 5 minutes, 5 times a day, so setting a few alarms on your phone might be a good way to remember to do so.
Choose a Reward and Get Excited About It.
To stay motivated, you might want to set up a system so you can earn your way toward a reward, and come up with a reward that supports your new habit. Using unhealthy habits as a reward puts too much positive emphasis on them and should be avoided.
For example, if you want to start a 3-mile-a-day jogging habit, rather than allowing yourself to eat a cookie after each jog, give yourself a star on your calendar instead.
Once you’ve collected a predetermined amount of stars, buy yourself a new pair of sneakers to make jogging even more enjoyable.
One of the most important parts of creating a habit is consistency and repetition. The more often you behave in a particular way, the easier it becomes to behave that way in the future.
If you begin to make exceptions and avoid your new habit behavior, you’re going to get in the habit of avoidance instead of success.
If you do find yourself breaking your new habit, don’t be discouraged. Even with consistent repetition it takes neurons at least 3 months to solidify in a new configuration.
So if you fall off the wagon and into your old patterns, just get right back on your chosen path.
With persistence it will become the easiest one to travel.
How to Break an Old Habit
Become Mindful of Your Habit.
Before you try to change anything, begin to observe your behavior around the habit you’d like to change.
Notice how you feel right before you engage in your undesired behavior. Notice how you feel afterwards.
In other words, keep track of what stimulates your habit, and what the reward is afterwards.
Shift Your Pattern.
Once you’ve identified the stimulus, choose a behavior with which you’d like to replace your old habit.
For example, if you’d like to quit smoking, decide that you’re going to take ten deep breaths and ten drops of lavender tincture instead of reaching for your cigarettes. Then come up with an appropriate reward, as discussed in the previous section.
Set a Reasonable Goal.
Old habits die hard, and the longer they’ve been around, the more they like to stay. So go easy on yourself and set small goals.
Don’t try to eradicate the habit overnight and punish yourself when you fail. Instead, concentrate on the progress you make in creating your new habit and reward yourself royally for that.
If you are kind to yourself and focus on the positive change you are creating, soon enough your old habit won’t have room to exist.
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If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, whose book inspired this article.