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A Look at Habits...

June 28, 2017

We often overlook them when they're good and lament them when they're bad, but irregardless of perception, habits are regular tendencies or practices we engage in that can be difficult to change.  They often become so automatic we do not even realize we're actually doing them (ex. fidgeting, nail-biting, knuckle-cracking).  Their inherent 'goodness' or 'badness' varies from person-to-person, but an understanding of how habits work and how to go about changing them can be incredibly valuable.

 

Habits, like most behaviours we engage in, are typically created to serve a need.  Instead of swirling into anxiety, we bite our nails.  To meet a need for connection and acceptance, we begin smoking in high school.  Making it through a public speech is so terror-inducing that we end up saying the word, "um", every third word.  Habits do not necessarily meet a need by curing us of what ails us; rather, they often create routines that help our mind to cope with events surrounding the need.  When we are put into the same scenario again, we default to this pattern, as we proved to our brains that we were able to survive whatever it was in front of us given this particular path. We end up training our brains to believe the habit is helping us meet the need.

 

Habits operate in the manner of the picture above.  A specific 'cue' comes along that triggers us. Whether that be the cup of coffee you have every morning that triggers you to light up a smoke, or the immediate thoughts of anxiety and embarrassment that cause you to be a stuttering mess whilst giving a speech, the 'cue' is the catalyst for a habit.  The 'routine' is the habitual behaviour itself.  It's that pattern that we've proven to our subconscious as the means to meet whatever need we're seeking, so we default to it; the brain will almost always seek the path of least resistance.  The 'reward' is the prize at the end -- the need we are hoping to achieve based on our behaviour.  As I mentioned before, at one point, the habitual behaviour did (or at least supposedly did) assist us in meeting the need.  In the case of 'bad' habits, the habitual behaviour not only is no longer actually helping us meet our need, but it may never have in the first place.

 

So, if we want to change our 'bad' habits and replace them with better ones, how do we go about doing so?  So many will point to the cue / routine / reward chain and suggest that we should replace the 'routine' whilst keeping the 'reward'.  Essentially, we substitute a new, healthier, behaviour for one that is no longer serving us.

 

The first step in replacing the 'routine' is to become aware of it, and accept that it no longer serves us.  Until we have awareness of the habit, we will continue to operate with the habit as an automatic response to the 'cue'.  The second step is to take responsibility and ownership for the habit.  No blame games or excuses -- someone else may have contributed to us creating a 'bad' habit, but we are the ones who continue to perpetuate it.  When we accept that we own the habit, and also that we own the ability to change it, we are ready to do so.  The third step is to replace the 'bad' habit with a new, 'good', one.  Chew on carrot sticks instead of lighting up a cigarette. Hold a pen in your hand to keep from fidgeting.  Whatever behaviour you are trying to replace, think of a healthier one that will help you meet your need, or at the very least, no longer create the same problems for you that the 'bad' one was.  The final step is to repeat the new 'routine' in order to train your subconscious that this is the new way you're doing things.  Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 21 to 40 days to create a new habit, so it's vital to repeat your new behaviour consistently.

 

Changing the way we think or act can certainly be an involved process -- especially when they're so ingrained as to be almost automatic.  Armed with awareness and a desire to make your life the way you want it, however, you can tackle your subconscious into submission.  And be a much happier person in the end for it.

 

 

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