In this long read, you will find some understanding for why you do some of the things you do and how to change bad habits into better and more healthier ones.
This is especially helpful for those that feel trapped in the routine of habits that they just can’t seem to get out of.
Ones that seem impossible to shift and perhaps are performed automatically.
How do we change our bad habits? Let’s firstly understand;
What is a Habit?
A habit is an acquired behavior that is regularly followed until it has almost become involuntary.
It’s something that you do often and on a regular basis and at times without knowing you are doing it.
An automatic response to a specific situation.
We are creatures of habit and in fact according to a study from Duke University in 2006 found that more than 40% of our daily actions are not actual decisions, they are habits.
The Brain and its relationship with Habits
When a sequence is repeated and repeated, our brain will “wire together” the sequence into its hardware to conserve energy. Rather than having to keep working through such patterns, the hardware is programed and allows us to perform the repeated task more or less without thinking.
Think of it as an “Autopilot” mode. By conserving energy and using autopilot, the brain is able to focus on other important matters while at the same time, the repeated program can keep operating.
However, a word of caution – if we do not check in on our repeated programs, they may become problematic.
Think of how a high street store, that was once very successful, continued to market and sell in the very same way that has also been successful. The world changes, technology advances and yet the high street store continues to market and sell in the very same way that it has always been successful with.
In time, this store will start to lose sales, fall behind and the business becomes problematic. (I can think of store such as Blockbusters or HMV as an example)
Without checking in on our auto pilot sequences, the very same thing might happen.
Dangers of not checking In on Autopilot
Let’s pick drinking as an example;
Initially a pint after work while waiting for the train home seems fairly harmless. This would become a frequent event, pretty much 3 out of the 5 working days and overtime, the brain wires this sequence of events into its hardware. What once was a decision to “stop for a pint” becomes something that is not even through about, it’s just performed without any attention.
The 3 out of 5 days become 5 out of 5, without any further thought as Work, The Train station, The Pub and the Pint become fused together into one sequence of events, rather than a number of sequences. The brain does this to conserve energy and hence the habit is born along with an Autopilot mode for it.
Had we checked in on our repeated program, we may have taken the time to consider if this habit was becoming problematic.
Let’s look at this a little deeper
Think about a time where you have purchased a new gadget. Maybe a new musical instrument, or a new smart TV – yes let’s use a Smart TV for the example.
You purchase your Smart TV and bring it home all excited and ready to unbox and explore this new marvel.
Once unboxed you fix it together and begin on the instructions (all 200 pages of them!)
During this moment, your Brain is fully focused on learning. It wants to understand how you can use the remote to find your favourite channels, how to flip between cable TV and your DVD player etc.
You make many mistakes and frustration kicks in, but you keep going back and trying again and again until finally you master the smart TV, the remote control and all the functions relevant to your personal enjoyment.
So far we have used the “Thinking Brain” and have “repeatedly moved around the functions”
What comes next is the brain saying “I have mastered this and I no longer need to use energy to work it out and off it sends the sequence from The Pre Frontal Cortex (the thinking and decision making part of the brain) to the Basal Ganglia area where the task becomes more automatic.
The next time you use your Smart TV, so much less thought and attention is paid to the operation and therefore the “Habit” of using the Smart TV is born.
Can you relate that to anything you do (any bad habits that you want to change)?
Habit Loops (According to James Clear)
To understand further, let’s look at what is known as a habit loop.
James Clear (2018) details this very clearly in his book Atomic Habits https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits and according the Clear, there is a four stage model within a habit loop.
Our brain likes reward. Practically everything we do, has the motive for a reward. I am not just talking about the obvious, but of all the outcomes that our brain acknowledges as a “reward”
This stems back to our ancestors. Humans that would hunt for food, the reward being they do not starve as an example.
Here are a few obvious and not so obvious examples;
If we clean our teeth – the reward being that we may not have to have fillings
One work’s hard – the reward could be promotion or self-satisfaction of a good job done.
We do our best to dress our children appropriately when it’s cold – the reward being that they do not fall ill.
Take a moment to think of a few routine things that you do and see if you can link the reward as to why you do this……
So the brain like rewards and therefore it is motivated to remember the habit loop in the future.
Take Gambling as an example.
A big win on the pokies is certainly a “reward” the brain will remember. But all the other loses?
It is noteworthy that Habits that tend to have a reward the brain likes, are remember much more that Habits that have no reward.
This may raise a question in your mind about the gambler and the pokies. Surely if one loses more times than one wins, then the habit will not be remembered?
I spoke with a Gambler recently who continues to play the pokies every day. Even though he loses more times than wins. He tells me that all he pictures is that grand jackpot that he won 4 years ago. The remember habit of 4 years ago remains as the powerful motivator.
But this is changeable as we will find out later on.
The cue for a habit is the bit of information that predicts a reward. In today’s world rewards can be a whole diversity of things (Money, Power, Personal Satisfaction etc). The Cue therefore is about noticing the reward.
Again we draw back to the gambler who visualizes the grand jackpot. This is the Cue to the reward (even though this reward may never eventuate)
The natural progression at this stage would be the craving. The craving is the motivational force behind every cue. When we feel that a reward is close, we crave for it.
A Gambler will get the dopamine hit of a reward just by anticipating a possible win, even when the wheels of a pokie machine are still spinning!
This is the actual habit that you perform. This could be a thought or an action.
The end goal of any habit – period.
We chase rewards because they satisfy us and also because they teach us – being that the reward teaches us which actions are worth remembering in the future.
It is worth noting that the first purpose of the reward is to satisfy the craving.
Problem and Solution Phases
All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Therefore we can understand why the first two stages (Cue and Craving) are the problem phase and the response and reward stages are the solution. These stages are where we take action and archive a desired change.
What’s going on in the brain?
I touched on earlier about the Pre Frontal Cortex and the Basal Ganglia regions of the brain. The PFC being responsible for the learning and the BG (which plays a key role in emotions, memories and pattern recognition) taking over in auto pilot mode.
However early on in the learning process (before auto pilot takes over) a signal arises in the BG region (known as the dorsolateral striatum – DS) and starts to bond together the task-related events so that the brain sees the whole task from beginning to end as one event.
As an example let’s go back to the smart TV. When we were reading the instructions, pressing buttons, linking various items together, the DS was noticing the whole procedure step by step. Once mastered, the brain tries to be as efficient as possible and bonds all the tasks together and calls it a single task. So to turn on the TV, press the remote buttons, load the DVD player all become one task “to watch a movie”
Think of it this way;
The first time you set up the TV you are thinking more. Then the second time you think some, but not as much and by the third of fourth time, you think little at all. All the procedures have been bonded together to form one task, thus freeing up brain energy.
Habits and the Environment
Research has demonstrated that triggers from our environment play an important role in habit formation. For example;
Those trying manage to maintain sobriety can do so very well in say a controlled environment of rehab, however fail to so when they return to the old environment.
I remember someone saying to me once, “If you want to quit smoking, go on holiday” (I was used to thinking “I will quit when I get back from holiday”). But taken out of the old environment, there is a fresh opportunity to form a new pattern as the old cues and rewards are not there.
The gambler or the drinker who frequents the same pub or gaming room would barely notice the journey to the venue, however change the environment (example take a different route home that avoids pubs) and there are chances for a new pattern to form.
The environment could be considered as stronger than willpower and even possibly motivation. Consider what you can do the change your environment should you wish to learn new or break old habits.
Want to learn French? Plaster sayings and words around visible areas of you home.
Have a desire to stop gambling when you are out drinking? Be aware of the environmental cues (the pub or casino.) and replace these cues with a new environment.
It’s easier to build new habits in a new environment because you are not fighting against old cues.
A client of mine used to go to the same pub every week and order his beer and make his way to the Pokies.
He wanted to stop gambling and reduce his beer intake. Having researched the local area, he found that there was a friendly wine bar that he had never noticed. The first time he visited this new venue, he took a book and started to read while enjoying a small glass of wine. Finding this pleasurable (and much less expensive), he created a new habit, in a new environment. It was much easier to resist the temptation of the cues to gamble from his old environment.
As we will read later, making the Environment invisible, is a very positive way to making the cue invisible.
Remember though – old habits don’t die, they lie dormant or covered over with new, more desirable habits. Should you return to the old environment or return to doing one of the behaviours, you may begin to re-awaken the habit as well.
Making and Breaking Habits
By now, I hope you have some understanding of how habits form and why they become a task that we often hardly notice at all.
1 – We simplify life and free up brain space by automating certain sequences of behavior
2 – Once a sequence has been repeated a number of times, it is bonded together to become a single task as opposed to a number of tasks.
3 – This single task becomes able to perform with little thought (auto pilot)
Let’s now have a look at how we can make or break a habit (the juicy content!)
Again I return to the wonderful work from James Clear who says that changing behavior begins with asking oneself 4 questions with each one of them being related to one of the stages (Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward)
1 How can I make it obvious? (Cue)
2 How can I make it attractive? (Craving)
3 How can I make it easy? (Response)
4 How can I make it satisfying? (Reward)
It is very worthwhile noting that this can be reversed to breaking a habit
1 – How can I make it invisible? (Cue)
2 – How can I make it unattractive? (Craving)
3 – How can I make it difficult? (Response)
4 – How can I make it unsatisfying? (Reward) (Clear, 2018)
Let’s break these all down into examples;
Rule 1 How can I make it Obvious?
Our brains and bodies do so much without us consciously telling them to.
Your stomach starts to rumble – cue for eating
You yawn – cue for sleeping
Your lips are dry – cue for water
The point here is that we do not need to be consciously aware of a cue for a habit to begin (yes sleeping can be considered a habit with the reward of recharging our bodies)
Caution though, this can also make them very dangerous. “We can’t change a habit we aren’t aware of”
But we can with awareness. Behaviour change comes with awareness.
Lets set an example;
I am from the UK and therefore well versed to driving on the left side of the road. Its something I have done this all my life and so the “Habit” of driving on the left is completely set to auto pilot. Rarely, if ever, do I get in my car and think “which side of the road should I be on”
During the summer, I drove to France via the Eurotunnel. Upon arrival, I was nervous about driving on the other side of the road, so I concentrated fully on my driving and the road (especially the roundabouts!)
My Pre Frontal Cortex is in full operation as I thinking things through and concentrate on learning to drive on the other side of the road. I have to think about distances between the middle lane markings as they are now on the opposite side of the car. Mirror checking seemed different as well. Turning into a road was somehow a new experience.
After a few days my confidence had grown and I was much more relaxed with driving.
However suddenly, one morning I found myself steering right towards an oncoming bus!
I let out a scream and swerved my car back onto the right hand side of the road, narrowly missing a potentially life threatening accident.
What had happened here?
The danger had come because I had repeated the action of driving on the right side enough times to start to form a habit. We could say that my basal ganglia had took over from my pre frontal cortex, allowing me to drive from habit. But my habit is to drive on the left.
The point being here is that behavior change starts with awareness.
*Create a Habit’s scorecard.
*List all the habits you can think of that you do
*For each habit, decide whether it’s a good habit, a neutral habit or a bad habit.
Changing habits begins with noticing what we are actually doing.
Habit-stacking is where we “stack” a new habit on top of a habit that is already taking place. The original habit therefore serves as a cue to perform a new second habit. One can stack more than one habit together and can create a very advantageous momentum of behavior.
S.J Scott’s book Habit Stacking 97 small life changes that take 5 minutes or less suggests;
“Linking habits together is a way of getting more done in less time, resulting in a positive change in your life. As you perform the stacked actions every day, they become part of your daily routine.”
According to Scott, there are 8 elements of a habit-stacking routine;
1 Each habit takes less than five minutes to complete.
2 It’s a complete habit.
3 It improves your life.
4 It’s simple to complete.
5 The entire routine takes less than 30 minutes.
6 It follows a logical process.
7 It follows a checklist.
8 It fits your life.
A simpler version can be the use of awareness to form positive habits that can be stacked onto current habits.
Health – While I wait for the water to boil for my coffee I will do 5 push-ups against the wall (I am aware that this will help my health)
Health – After I clean my teeth, I will allow time to sip a large glass of water before I leave for work
Mental Health – While drink my daily morning cup of coffee, I will write down 3 things that I am grateful for today. I can follow this by writing down my 5 most important things I need to complete today. (Note here, we have stacked 2 new habits onto the original habit of making coffee – this can be known as a habit staircase)
Work – I will start on the most unpleasant task first (Reason being that if you focus on your hardest task first, the rest of the day doesn’t seem that hard)
Relationships – After our nightly dinner we will allocate 15 minutes to talk about the day, before we watch TV.
Rule 2 – Make It Attractive (Craving)
If we make the cues attractive, we are more likely to desire them. If it’s attractive, it sticks. For this, we use the term supernormal stimulus.
Supernormal stimulus is an artificial stimulus that produces in an animal a response that is stronger than would be evoked by the natural stimulus it resembles.
Have you ever looked at a magazine front cover such as a fitness magazine? See how that lean and fit that person looks, smiling at you from the shiny cover? Perhaps you would like to have the same look? Perhaps you buy the magazine? This is an example of supernormal stimulus.
Should that same magazine feature the same person but without the makeup, without the fake white teeth and dressed so that you cannot see their muscles, I wonder if we would be attracted to the very same magazine?
Think of fast food restaurants. They spend millions of dollars just to get the right smell that puffs out of their chimneys and air circulation. Who can deny that smell of KFC (sometimes you can’t even see the store!). Is it the same experience when you walk past a store boiling cabbage?
So for Rule 2 we need to make it attractive. How, I hear you say, can we make washing the dishes attractive?
Well we can habit stack this habit. Perhaps if you like music, make it a habit to play your favourite songs while you wash up. We can additional be aware that the reward of washing up is that we have clean dishes ready for our next habit of eating.
Remember, the more attractive we can make the things we must do, the more habit-forming they are.
We can make our habits more attractive by pairing what we want to do with actions we need to do (I want to see the next episode of this new program, but I can only see it if I wash the dishes first)
To get rid of a bad habit we can invert rule 2 by making the bad habit unattractive (think of how cigarette companies were forced to put photos of dying people on their cartons)
The Crucial Point of Breaking Bad Habits
Every craving has a deeper, underlying motive. If we went deep enough and traced it right back, it would probably relate to survival. Our most modern habits (example spending huge amounts of time on social media and neglecting other duties) will more than often have ages-old motive. (Perhaps being on social media could be traced back to the same need for love and approval, hence survival in tribal times)
The point being that most habits are a modern solution to an old problem.
Habits are associations in which we receive a cue (example the aroma of fresh coffee) and determine, based on previous experience (example – enjoying the warm coffee) whether we can predict that the habit is worth repeating or not.
Once we have realized the link we have made between the cue and the habit, we can make a different prediction (the coffee will make you hyper. Stopping for that coffee is going to make you late). We can then re-program, finding a different solution (reward) to the problem (grab a fresh drink that you can enjoy when you get to work)
Let’s put this theory to our Gambler;
What about if rather than picturing that big won all those years ago, he instead brings awareness to that cue and then can apply a different prediction to the cue such as picturing the ATM withdrawals, taking a sense of that feeling when nearly all the money has gone? – Make the cue as unattractive as possible.
Remember once we realise the link we have made between the cue and the habit, we can make a different prediction.
In addition, measures to change the environment can be applied. If he thinks about the patterns of where he is and what he is doing, prior to the trigger of the habit, maybe changes can be made there? – Changing the environment not only for the actual habit, but prior to the cue.
A heavy drinker once told me that he implemented a new habit of having to drink 1 pint of water in-between every pint of beer he had. – Habit Stacking.
What can you think of doing to;
- Bring awareness to habits
- Modify a habit for the better by habit stacking
- Break a habit by making the cue as unattractive as possible
A Note on Cravings
The gap between satisfaction of the desire and the current state is the strength of the desire to feel different.
Example – when the cue of a grumbling stomach occurs the desire is to eat and be full
It is our feelings and emotions that tell us something is missing. That something has not been fulfilled and we therefore want to fill that gap between the current sensations and what we want to actually sense.
This can be illustrated in the drinker who feels lonely. He or she desires to rid of the feeling and turns to the bottle to find the sense they want to feel.
A craving is an attempt to address a basic underlying motive.
When the habit successfully address the motive, the craving develops to do it again.
Therefore to successfully change a habit, we must find a new solution for an existing need.
The new solution, to be effective in changing the habit, must make the old habit unattractive while still meeting the need that the old habit was trying to meet.
The drinker, with support, may well be able to discover that there are other, more positive ways to satisfy his need to rid his loneliness.
In today’s world, the culture we live in determines which behaviours are attractive to us. We are pressurised to “fit in” and in doing so, we often adopt habits that the people we look up to, admire or want to be like have.
For many of us, smoking start in the early teens because we wanted to “fit in” We desired to be one of the “tough kids” and so we adopted the habits from the others we aspired to.
The same can be action-ed for the changes we want to make to our lives. Joining social groups where the normal behavior of the group is in line with the changes we want to make can be very effective.
If one wants to stop drinking consideration can be made to changing the environment (not going to the pub) and enjoying the company of friends or new associates that socialise away from drinking and the pub.
Simple to write I know, but with small steps and tweaks this is all possible.
The key t o fixing bad habits is to re-frame the associations we have about them, associating them now with negative feelings.
Counselling is a great idea for finding the tools and support to action this.
Rule Three – Make it easy (Response)
Rule Three and Four belong to the solution half of Clear’s habit formation cycle.
It is very common for people to ask “how long does it take to form a new habit”
One can research and find all kinds of opinions about this “do the same things for 28 days and will will become a habit”
“take to 100 day challenge and all will be cured” and so on.
There is no definitive answer as the answer is actually another question “how long will it take you to repeat this behavior so much that the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at the activity”
However the easier we make the action we are trying to make a habit, the greater the chance that we will perform it repeatedly and in turn, the sooner we can turn it into a habit.
The advice therefore, is to keep the plans simple. Just like goal setting, start with small, achievable goals that are specific.
We can look at this both ways for creating new habits and breaking old habits. Make new habits simple and make old habits difficult to do (example cutting up your debt card that you used to use for cash withdrawals at the expensive pub ATM machine. Therefore on would have to go to the bank to draw card-less cash – making it difficult to continue the habit)
“The right thing is easy”
“The wrong thing is more difficult”
The 2 Minute Rule
James Clear (2018) recommends following the two minute rule. Start something new for just 2 minutes every day and build up over time. I quote his wonderful example of this;
If you want to, say, run a marathon, it is a worthy but very difficult goal. Running a 5-kilometre run is still hard. Walking 10,000 steps is moderate in difficulty. Walking 10 minutes is easy. And putting on your jogging shoes? Ah, that, says Clear, is very easy. You can do it in two minutes.
It can be the start of the eventual completion of the marathon. Putting on your shoes is a “gateway habit”: one which leads as a small action to a bigger piece of action. The small action begins to shape your behaviour. That is, you expect to put your jogging shoes on each day.
Clear notes that, what happens after the two minute “gateway” behaviour may be challenging (e.g., doing a whole run today), but the first two minutes should be easy, so that you can “buy in” fairly small, and start wiring together the neurons that lace up your jogging shoes with the ones that see you step out onto the jogging track Clear, 2018)
Remember that Rule Three can be inverted
Take time to consider how you can make your bad habits harder to do. The gamblers cash card destruction is just one example. You can adapt a whole range of ideas and actions to make your bad habit difficult.
Rule 4 – Make it satisfying (Reward)
We understand by now that behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated. After all, we like rewards. Our brain is wired for seeking reward.
On the flip side, behavior that is not rewarding in some way, will drop off over time.
It’s also worth noting that behavior tends to be led by what happens right after it as opposed to later on.
Example – we savour that look/taste of a cold beer on a summer day and get the immediate reward of the cool drink. However later on we may feel tired, slower and conscious of the carb overload of a beer)
Have you ever noticed that, often, the immediate results of the behavior are just the opposite of the long-term results?
We enjoy at the time staying up late to watch the game, but feel tired and cant concentrate at work the next day.
We reward ourselves with a burger and deep fried chips, but are overweight because of it.
I am remind of a saying from French economist Frederic Bastiat;
“The sweeter the first fruit of habit, the more bitter are its later fruits”
But don’t get me wrong, we do not have to deny ourselves of pleasure. We just have to be smart about things and remain aware of habits that we do and do not want.
In short – we should question, when we get immediate pleasure from and action, does it align with our long-term goals.
If a behavior is immediately rewarded, but in the longer term punished, we need to address these habits.
Find ways to feel successful right away.
When we start to change bad habits, it is important that we feel satisfaction. By resisting the bad habit, we need to ensure that the “reward” of resistance is visible.
We return to our gambler who has resisted playing the pokies for the last week. Perhaps his reward is having more money in his account? Or a pot full of notes at home that would not have been there? There may be enough reward just by having the pleasure of seeing the bank account healthy. But perhaps he could search deeper and pay a little more than usual off the credit card? The reward being that he has slightly less stress about the credit card balance and that he performed something positive.
Somebody else may have a habit of spontaneous buying of cloths. Suppose this lady wanted to save money for a dress for a wedding that is coming up. She wants tp change this “bad habit” so she creates a new habit of “saving” and resists the temptation to buy those shoes that look stunning in the window. By doing nothing other than not spending, this may not be completely satisfying, but perhaps she could look at those shoes that are $300, walk away and immediately transfer $300 to her savings account.
Identity-based habits start with a focus on who we wish to become. This is followed by the seeking of processes to assist that. The end result being an outcome. Such an outcome has a really chance of sticking.
Many people tend to start any chance process by starting with the outcome “what they want to achieve first. (Example quite drinking, lose weight, treat their loved one better etc.). They then seek out the process that will help them achieve the outcome. The problem with this is that they may never get to the final stage – the Identity. If the identity does not change, then there is always the treat of the old identity returning and therefore it will be difficult to maintain the behaviours of the new habit.
As an example, if someone asks a drinker (who has set an outcome first of becoming a non-drinker) if they would like a drink, the answer may most likely be something like “no thanks, I am trying to quit” – this is stating that they are still a drinker buy “trying” not to drink.
Flip this around and start by identify and identify that you wish to become a person that does not drink. Your answer to the same question might be “No thanks, I am not a drinker” – this is stating that your identify, as a person, is someone who does not drink.
Where the first reply could change tomorrow if the person decides to have the drink, the second answer has more permanence in it. The person is affirming that they won’t ever drink again because they are not a drinker. There is power in this.
Words such as “Do” or “Don’t” are more empowering than words such as “Can” or “Can’t”
Track your new Habits
We know by now how much we like rewards and the reward of a good habit is…. A good habit!
Tracking progress is a good way to satisfy us and make our habit obvious. Once you have affirmed your new identity, start creating a track record of every time you manage to action your new habit. It can be very motivational (another reward)
Be on guard for any days that you miss your tracking as we don’t want to form a habit of missing our check ins!
Sign a habit contract
Finding a friend, colleague, counsellor or just about anyone you are comfortable, and inviting them to be you accountability partner, is a fantastic way to keep you on track and motivated.
This person holds you accountable. Perhaps you can set rules in the contract (example – I will donate $100 to charity if I have a drink)
There are many variations that you could work with here. But the main purpose is they just need to make it instantly painful for you not to go ahead with your chosen habit.
As part of my counselling service, I offer further insight and support for all individuals that have the desire to make change.
Thank You For Reading
I trust that you have found this blog interesting and my tanks extends toe the acknowledgements listed below.
Finally – why the peacock in the first photo? If you would like to offer your answer, please email me – firstname.lastname@example.org
Let us help you change your bad habits. Feel free to reach up to Colwill counselling at any time here
Little Hinges Swing Big Doors – Steve Scott
Sources and Acknowledgements
James Clear (2018) details this very clearly in his book Atomic Habits https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits
Mental Health Academy (MHA). (n.d.). Educating clients about physical wellness (continuing education course). Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia: MHA.
Sam Thomas Davies https://www.samuelthomasdavies.com/habit-stacking/
Supernormal stimulus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_stimulus
Nir Eyal is a habits expert – https://www.nirandfar.com/about-nir-eyal/