6 Scientifically proven tips for changing habits
6 Scientifically proven tips to change habits.
Think of an annoying habit that you have struggled to get rid of. Whether it's biting your nails, eating chocolate in front of the TV, staring at your mobile for the umpteenth time or spending money shopping online, habits are formed in an instant and are hard to break.
If you've ever tried to quit certain habits, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Changing habits requires willpower, self-discipline, a strategy and a good understanding of how they are established.
But how do you break bad habits, and what exactly is it that makes it so difficult, no matter how motivated you are?
Although it may not seem like it, habits are actually automatisms (i.e. automatic behaviours) and not well-considered decisions. Once ingrained in the brain, they no longer fall into the category of "conscious behaviour".
First and foremost, habits exist as a kind of shortcut for our brain. To save energy and focus on what is important, our mind has evolved to find an easy way to do everything. As soon as our little grey cells realise that we behave in a certain way over and over again, a habit is formed. This habit allows our mind to go on autopilot and take over the running of our body.
So while you're busy with your morning routine, cycling to work or scrolling through your Instagram feed before bed, you don't have to think too hard. That's because you've already behaved this way so many times that it's ingrained in your brain.
Although they save us a lot of time and energy, habits can negatively affect our productivity, well-being or happiness. But the good news is that, because they are shaped by our minds, the key to breaking old habits lies in communicating with our brains in the right way.
Here are 6 scientifically proven tips to change your habits, outsmart your brain and finally keep your bad habits at bay.
1. Find the source of your bad habit
Figuring out why your habit exists in the first place is a lot less complicated than it sounds. It turns out that there is a pretty clear formula behind almost every habit. Every habit is made up of three basic components, according to Charles Duhigg:
1. Desencadenantethe sensation, time or place that triggers the habit.
2. Rutina: the habit itself
3. Rewardthe need that satisfies the habit.
Being aware of these components is the first step to curbing your stupid habits. Here's how: Pay close attention the next few times you perform your particular routine (habit). Try to consciously notice the trigger and the reward that caused it. For best results, write down the trigger, the routine and the reward each time.
Let's say you are trying to get rid of the bad habit of looking at your mobile phone before going to bed because it makes you sleep too little. Ask yourself the following questions: "What triggers the routine" and "What (social) need am I trying to satisfy?
The next time it happens, concentrate: if you switched off the lamp just before going to bed (trigger), picked up the phone, scrolled through your feed (routine) and thereby satisfied your need for social proximity, write it down. After doing this several times, you can check if everything follows a certain pattern of behaviour. If you always scroll your phone as soon as you turn off the light (trigger), or you see that this habit satisfies your social needs (reward), then you are on the right track.
Recognising your bad habits not only helps you to find effective alternatives (more on this later), but also to become more aware of them. This new awareness transforms the habit from an automatic and unconscious routine into a deliberate and conscious pattern of behaviour.
2. Change environment
Figuring out what triggers your habit is the first step to getting rid of it. Why? The trigger activates the habit: without it, you wouldn't feel compelled to start the routine in the first place.
So the trick is to remove the trigger altogether. According to Dan Ariely, Chief Behavioural Officer at Lemonde, the best way to do this is to take advantage of a completely new environment.
"When you move, you are not exposed to all the environmental cues you are used to. If you go on holiday or do something different for a few weeks, it's a good time to break a habit".
The proof is in the eating: Researchers found that students were more likely to change their habits after changing universities than students in the control group, because they were no longer exposed to the usual triggers.
It seems that the best time to tackle a bad habit is during a business trip or holiday. Because your brain is not exposed to the usual triggers, you can avoid fighting your instincts during the habit change. And once you return to familiar surroundings, it is much easier to continue with the new behaviour.
If you are not planning to go on holiday anytime soon (as most of us probably are), you can remove the trigger from your usual environment altogether as an additional trick. Going back to the mobile phone example, let's say you've realised that turning off the light is the trigger for picking up the phone.
Experiment to see if you lose that particular habit if you simply don't turn on the lamp. Use your mobile phone light or the light on your bedroom ceiling. This may be the key to breaking the habit once and for all.
3. Formulate positive objectives
Now that we have addressed the triggering stimulus, it is time to focus on another key component of the habit: the routine. Little reminder, the routine is the behaviour that triggers the triggering stimulus: it is the habit you want to get rid of.
When we decide to change bad habits, we often formulate our goals in a negative way. We proclaim that we will try to stop hitting the snooze button, eating cereal in the middle of the night or biting our nails.
However, the part of our brain responsible for habits does not understand negative goals (I'm going to stop eating junk food), but goes through a learning process when working towards positive goals (I'm going to eat healthy). In fact, studies show that we are much more likely to achieve a goal that produces a desired outcome (eating healthy) than to eliminate an undesired outcome (eating junk food).
Why is this? Pursuing negative goals is associated with feelings of incompetence, lower self-esteem and less satisfaction with one's progress, and these emotions block us, according to psychologists. In contrast, it is much easier to get excited about achieving a positive goal. And that increases the likelihood of achieving it.
Instead of setting yourself a goal to stop scrolling before bed, make it a goal to sleep better. Or instead of trying to stop going out to bars, aim to spend more evenings with friends in your flat. Read on for 6 scientifically proven tips to change your habits.
4. Find a good substitute
Here's another reason why your brain doesn't check negative goals: it's hard enough for both our mind and body to completely abandon a habit. Once a habit is formed, we instinctively abandon the familiar programme as soon as our brain recognises the trigger and demands the reward. So if you tell yourself that you have to stop spending too much money at your favourite bar, that's not enough to really change anything.
Instead of trying to eliminate the habit altogether - which almost never works - the trick is to feed the brain a new routine to replace the old one. How? Keep the old trigger, deliver the reward, but introduce a new routine.
Returning to the example of the mobile phone at bedtime, you have already realised that you want social proximity (reward) as soon as you switch off the bedside lamp (trigger) and that this habit stands between you and dreamland.
To replace this habit, find other evening activities that also satisfy your need for social proximity. Try making a quick call to one of your friends before going to bed, or talking to your mother for a few minutes on WhatsApp (bonus: she'll be happy!). Feel free to experiment with different routines to see what works best for you.
Once you have found a new routine, try to do it whenever triggers and reward cravings appear. Because the new habit meets your brain's needs, you shouldn't meet too much resistance, either physically or mentally. And the more often you practice the new habit, the easier it will be for your brain to internalise it and, over time, it will become second nature. Read on to learn more about these 6 scientifically proven tips for changing habits.
5. Tell your friends about your progress.
Sharing your goals with others is certainly an underrated tool. According to a study by the Association for Science and Technology, you are 65% more likely to achieve your goal if you tell one of your friends about it. If you meet one of your colleagues for a coffee and talk about your goals, the probability of achieving them increases by 95%! If that's not impressive.
Why is it so effective to communicate your goals to your friends? Once we make public commitments to others, we tend to feel obliged to keep them. This is due to our fundamental desire to make our behaviour and beliefs consistent with each other. This tendency is called cognitive dissonance.
Sharing successes with friends also provides positive reinforcement. Let's say you tell a friend that you've committed to a new habit of managing your money better. If you tell him that you invited your friends over instead of meeting them at the pub, he's sure to praise you. When this happens, your brain internalises the high you get from the "Hey, great!", or the "Proud of you". And that encourages you even more to keep managing your money well and save more.
Now, the next time you are trying to break an old habit, write to a friend, preferably one who is also trying to break an annoying habit. If you share each other's victories and setbacks, you'll have a much better chance of breaking that unwanted habit for good. 6 tips for changing habits
6. Be kind to yourself
When you set out to change a habit, there's always a chance that it won't go quite right. It's too tempting to surf the internet after a long day at work, despite your best efforts to go to bed early. Or spending the extra 15 euros on a night out at the bar, even if you're trying to invite friends over to the flat-share.
When (not if) this happens, the best thing to do is to be kind to yourself. If you beat yourself up, you may associate your goal with negative feelings that can ruin your progress and motivation.
Good news: according to a study by Dr Philippa Lally, messing up from time to time doesn't affect the brain's habit-forming process. So if you do slip up from time to time, pick yourself up and carry on as normal.
In fact, making mistakes is a productive step in your journey to get rid of habits: you can learn something about your habit that will influence your strategy.
If you try to eat healthy and occasionally give up during a business meal or a stressful moment, you will learn to be better prepared next time. This experience may even help you overcome your bad habits more successfully and once and for all.
It's time to break your habits!
Each of us has a habit we've been dying to get rid of. But it definitely won't happen if we don't approach it a bit strategically. Our brain is the most powerful organ in our body, and once a habit has taken root, we need to communicate with our thinking organ in a very specific way. With the tricks and tools described above, you'll be able to replace your stupid habit (with better ones) in no time. And who knows, maybe you will be positively surprised and the new routine will even benefit you personally.
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