We all bemoan our bad habits but before we can break them, we need to rethink our approach to them. For a start even the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conjure up feelings of right or wrong which, in turn, places an enormous amount of pressure on us to not slip up. Struggling to get to the gym or to stop reaching for your phone before bed? Guess what, beating yourself up about it is almost as debilitating as the habit you’re trying to break. However, before you even attempt to rewire your brain towards more positive pathways, it’s helpful to understand what habits actually are.
“Habits are formed through context dependant recognition which means doing the same thing in the same circumstances enough times that it becomes a habit,” explains Dr Heather McKee, a leading lifestyle behavioural change therapist. “They work off a loop consisting of a trigger, a routine and a reward. For example, you wake up and go into the bathroom, your toothbrush is there, which is the trigger, you brush your teeth which is the routine and the reward is positive mental hygiene. The interesting thing is that bad habits tend to be more easily established.”
Interesting but also annoying, although that’s not to say that changes can’t be made. Here’s how you can rewire your brain in seven easy steps…
How to train your brain #1: Start simple
“I like to look at breaking bad habits as untangling a big knot, as habits are complexed meshed behaviours and you can’t really resolve them all at once - you must work on untangling them one by one,” says Heather. And for anyone who’s lost hours untangling a necklace/lace/knot in their hair, you’ll know the key to success is starting with the smallest first. With any knot, Heather says, there are three important stages:
“The first is to examine the cue and what’s driving these habits. I do a temptation tacker to see when people are most tempted to stray from their goals. We think giving into temptation is random but actually we tend to have the same patterns so to understand the triggers that cause us to engage is really useful. For example, a study I published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that 3.30pm and 8pm were the times of day when people were most likely to give into sugary or alcohol temptations.”
“The second thing is that rather than focusing on the solutions - say ‘giving up sugar altogether’ you need to look at the driver of the behaviour itself. Is your increased sugar actually down to tiredness/stress/boredom? Once you’ve examined that you have a better idea of the reward you’re craving.”
“Finally, you want to experiment with behavioural replacement - so what serves you better to engage in that reward. This is where you start small, so is their sugar in your life that you don’t enjoy or a certain time of day that will be easier to make a swap? What feels like a quick win? If you start with those you can easily and systematically work your way through the mesh until the habit knot is released - it also gives you more confidence to build up to unravelling the tighter, more difficult knots over time.”
How to train your brain #2: Take it slow
Rome wasn’t built in a day and according to the experts, changes need to be gradual if you want them to stick. Also, apologies to anyone who thought it takes 21 days to break a habit apparently, it’s more like 66 to 122, depending on how complex it is. “The 21 days has been a myth that’s been going round for years but it came from anecdotal research about plastic surgery and how long it took people to adapt to their new limb or appearance. You need to look at habit formation as a marathon, not a sprint, but the good news is that as time goes on it gets easier rather than harder and research shows that once a habit is formed it can become automatic,” says Heather. “This means that it goes into your non-conscious processing part of the brain so you don’t even have to think about it anymore. The old unhealthy habit will eventually become replaced by a new one that serves you better so don’t lose hope - it can take some people quite a long time.”
How to train your brain #3: Celebrate your wins
Congratulating yourself isn’t always something that comes easy. It’s much easier to focus on what you didn’t do well than what you did do, but if you want to stop the vicious behaviour cycle you need to be kind to yourself. “Discipline is obviously needed to create repetition of behaviour, but it needs to be created through joy,” explains Heather. “Emotions can also help create habit change as the dopamine we get from a rewarding behaviour is what leads to habit formation. If you feel like you need to self-critique yourself or you’re hard on yourself, it doesn’t create a dopamine response so it makes it harder to engage with long-term.”
She uses the analogy of a baby learning to walk. By rewarding it with claps, it releases dopamine in their brain, so they want to do it again and again. But your reward has to be quick - “dopamine appears for less than a minute, so you need that reward as an immediate response. Sing a song you love; do a fist pump; put your palms together in gratitude; tell yourself ‘you’ve got this’ - anything that brings on a smile immediately after you perform your habit. I like to do a drum roll on my desk. Celebrating every micro-step you take is also a clever way to fast track your habit change.”
How to train your brain #4: And embrace the slip-ups
Continuing in the be-kind-to-yourself vein, another one of Dr Heather McKee’s studies found that those people who see failure as their friend are more likely to stick to their habits. That’s because rather than crucifying themselves, they seek out the ‘why’ and investigate what made them give into temptation. “We found that rather than berating themselves for lack of willpower, they understood their lapse was temporary and then moved on,” she says.
It’s also where her ‘If/When’ technique comes into play. Acting as an action plan in order to prevent temptation or to help you get back on track if you do waver, it can be as simple as making a list of alternative options and keeping it visible in advance of those temptations. “If you set the goal of running more, before you start ask yourself what could get in the way of this new habit? So, if it’s raining outside - do you have a raincoat you can wear? Do you have a killer playlist you can listen to get you through it? Can you do an online workout instead? We have to open up our brain and neuro pathways to explore other options to show us that it isn’t all or nothing and there are other options,” continues Heather.
How to train your brain #5: Add some obstacles
This might sound counteractive but author of The Kindness Method, Shahroo Izadi suggests that by adding obstacles it acts like a circuit break so new habits can form. “If you’re trying to do less online shopping, don’t just delete the app, remove your card details too - the idea is to add as many speed bumps as possible between wanting to do something and actually going through with it. By imposing friction this way, you give yourself more time to think about what you’re doing and you’re more likely to catch those autopilot habits you want to change,” she says.
How to train your brain #6: Buddy up
Some people find it incredibly helpful to have a cheerleader waiting in the wings, others might find it stressful and intimidating so this one is all down to recognising what works for you. One thing it can help with is accountability, but this is where communication is king. Tell your support buddy what you expect from them, otherwise it could be patronising and instigate bad vibes. You do not want your other half tutting or questioning why you’re knee deep in chocolate biscuits and not at the gym when you’ve had a rubbish day of work, as that just leads to shame - and we all know that does nothing for our habits or our self-esteem!
Dr Heather recommends finding someone who is an aspirational target. “Someone who is really committed to their exercise programme or really successful at their job. If you connect with someone who’s just one step ahead of you with that goal, they can really motivate you. There’s also something called ‘emotional contagion’ which is where we replicate other people’s behaviours and they become contagious.”
How to train your brain #7: Do some soul searching
To make your new habits and routines really stick you have to give them gravitas - but not in external ways such as Facebook likes, a number on the scales or how many steps you’ve done. Goals like this are difficult and even when reached have a time-limit on how long they spark joy for. “One mistake we often make is thinking that the desire to change and the accomplishment of achieving a goal will be enough to sustain behavioural shifts,” says Sharoo. “Consider how you will behave when the initial novelty of change has worn off.”
This is where ‘intrinsic goals’ come in. “Intrinsic comes from the Latin word which means ‘goods for the soul’ so, for example, being healthy is important to you because you want to be full of energy or being successful at work because you want to be a positive role model for your children. Because these goals are linked to your higher values and things that matter to you the most, they’re much more motivating long term, and when it comes to staying on track it’s not about your willpower, it’s knowing that what you’re pursuing is part of your character and identity,” explains Heather.
By focusing on how these new habits will make you feel as opposed to chasing a short-lived goal will also keep you in it for the long game. “The key thing here is to focus on habits not goals - goals are only snapshots in time, habits are the daily behaviours we need to engage in,” concludes Heather. “Ask yourself what habits you enjoy - making a cup of tea/using a particular scented lotion/going for a walk…ultimately those are the things that will make you feel positive and make choices easier, so you don’t have to think about them anymore.”