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How to change your habits for good

How To Change HabitsAre you choosing habits that best serve your interests, the goals of your businesses and your community at large? This post looks at why we do what we do and how you can change your habits.

Often, choices that we might feel considered, are not. They are habits. A 2006 study found that 40% of the actions we take every day aren’t decisions, they are habitual. These routines can have significant impact on our health, wealth and happiness.

We are the results of our routine behaviour. For example, someone with a muscled physique will regularly exercise and eat well. Someone calm and centred, like the Dalai Lama, will practice daily meditation, prayer, mindfulness.

We all know we should change from some habits which are no good for us and yet we often persist in doing them. Why?

How Habits Work

Scientists believe that habits emerge because our brains are constantly looking for ways to save effort and energy. The brain will turn any routine behaviour into a habit if you let it. To do this our brains go through a three step loop to trigger ‘habit mode’ (thereby conserving effort) instead of a different mode.

The first step is a cue that triggers our brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Second is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. The third step is the reward, which helps your brain to assess if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

This three step loop of cue - routine - reward becomes automatic over time. Powerful senses of anticipation and craving then become linked with the cues and rewards in particular.

Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings that pre-empt the actual receiving of our reward in the three step loop. For example, supermarkets use smells of freshly baked bread and roasted chicken to trigger cravings before we even arrive in the bakery or deli sections. We feel the craving prior to even seeing, purchasing or eating the food.

The good news is that habits aren’t set in stone. They can be altered, substituted and ignored. What’s so important about the three step loop is that because your brain is working less hard when in ‘habit mode’ you have to choose to fight the habit and introduce new routines in order to change it.

How to Create New Habits

To successfully change our habits we first have to recognise which craving is driving our behaviour.

For instance, if you want to send more greeting cards it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (a birthday calendar on your fridge door) and you need a clear reward (the sense of accomplishment when posting the card).

These are not enough on their own though, because your brain has to start expecting the reward in order for it to become a habit. To do this companies create cravings. Cravings are the reason toothpaste tastes minty instead of sugary and Febreze is fragrant rather than odourless. Having these qualities makes us crave tingling teeth and fresh smelling homes.

Does this happen with cards? Do textures and fine boards help foster cravings because we have such a tactile relationship with wood and paper? Or do elements like characters, humour and sentiment cause cravings instead?

Before the advent of social media we might have said that the craving behind greeting cards was to feel that sense of love and connection with friends and loved ones. Now we all get these feelings on a daily basis via our mobile devices.

The notifications on our phones cause cravings. The ping, ping, ping sounds and even the red circles with numbers on them on our social media icons all trigger surges of serotonin (the happy hormone) in our brains before we’ve even opened the apps; before we’ve engaged and received our rewards of instant connection to our loved ones.

Once you’ve identified the craving that drives your behaviour you need to adapt a new strategy to affect a change in your routine.

The Secret to Habit Change

The truth is you can’t get rid of a bad habit, you can only change it. To do this you keep the old cues and rewards and substitute a new alternative routine. Almost any behaviour can be changed in this way. Over time the cravings then reset with positive habits that add more benefit to your life than the old ones.

In other words, the brain can be programmed, as long as you are deliberate about it.

For example, recently I noticed that I’d gotten into the habit of spending an hour on social media and reading news before getting up each morning. This habit doesn’t benefit me at all because it allows other people and events to occupy my mind which affects my cortisol levels (stress hormones) before I’m even out of bed.

In order to change I identified that I had a craving to get things done as soon as I woke up. The trouble is I was confusing being busy with being effective. Having my phone by my bed was my cue. I switched this cue for my journal, which is now the first thing I grab every day upon waking. I write down five things I am grateful for, how my life would be without them and how I came to have them in my life (Try this, it will change your life. I picked it up from my good friend and life coach Janet Mohapi-Banks). Then I write three pages of my journal to uncage my monkey mind, before meditating for ten minutes and then going for a short run. Upon return I have the reward of having accomplished things that benefit me and prime me for my day ahead.

To change effectively, I also rely on the help of a new group I joined.

Group Power

Change happens when we believe that it is feasible. You must believe that you can alter your behaviour. If you don’t, it’s difficult to make any progress.

All change happens in an instant. Snap. You make a decision that you will not suffer another day like this, you cannot carry on, you need to focus on a new direction. The first trick with these moments is to not hesitate. Take an action within five seconds that moves you towards attaining your new goal. Enroll at that gym and schedule the training time in, empty your booze down the sink, book that hypnotherapy session to quit smoking.

It’s key that you believe in your new direction. More often than not, that belief emerges with the help of a group. If you want to raise your standards, figure out a new, more powerful routine that will satisfy the cravings produced by your current modus operandi and then find a group of people that perform at this higher standard. Enlist their support when needed.

I joined a personal development group online to build in my new morning habits. Joining the group has enabled me to conquer my fears, grow my confidence levels and reach my goals faster and more effectively. Groups alter our environment and our state. Over time we adjust to new ways of being through the support of the group and supporting others within the group.

What’s most important to changing our habits is to notice them in the first place.

Noticing Our Habits

Most of us don’t notice the effects of our bad habits. We are acclimatised to them. For example, smoking cigarettes damages our olfactory capacities so much that smokers don’t notice that the effects of smoke on their homes, clothes and breath.

Even if we don’t smoke, we will have habitual behaviours that might stink without us realising. How we speak to ourselves, treat our loved ones, our staff, our customers, whether we slump in front of the TV every night or snack on rubbish, are all habitual behaviours. Are they good habits or bad habits for you and others?

I recently read an online quote that said: we are the the sum of the five people we spend the most time with. Perhaps we are also the sum of our five most common daily habits?

You don’t have to fix all your bad habits. Often there is a keystone habit, that if unlocked and altered can have a cascading effect of positivity on our lives and businesses, helping us to grow and prosper. Once you get in the habit of altering your bad habits, you'll find it easier with practice.

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