Improve your life by changing bad habits - the simpler way

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Everyone has habits they wish they could break. Mine is definitely procrastination. If there’s a task I need to do, and I’m over faced by it, I will do literally anything else but start. The house will be spotless, I’ll cook gourmet dinners, do piles of laundry, and even take on jobs for other people – just to avoid having to start. While avoiding starting to write my thesis I came across some great research about how habits are formed, why they persist, and how to go about breaking them. I promise after I write this blog I apply these tips – and try to start writing my thesis!

One of the most common reasons that people don’t manage to make changes to their lives, is that they don’t lay a solid foundation. Margret Moore , Co-director of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, says “You need to make sure the habit change is important, and you have confidence you can achieve it”. Changing a habit can only be done if you want to do it. This seems obvious but many people fall into the trap of trying to change a habit to please someone else, or they believe that they just aren’t capable of change. Rating your readiness to change, and your confidence that you can achieve the change on a scale of 1-10 can be a helpful way to see whether you will succeed. If your scores for either are below 6, try scaling back the challenge a little, for example instead of stopping smoking straight off, try cutting back to three cigarettes a day or swapping to vaping. “Once you build more confidence from changing a lesser habit, you can revisit a more ambitious one,” says Moore. Trying to change difficult habits, and repeatedly failing, lowers confidence - making future change even more difficult.

If you have decided to make a change, and feel you can achieve it, your best chance is to understand your habit. Habits, both good and bad, all follow a three step pattern:

Reminder – a trigger that causes the behaviour

Routine – the behaviour itself

Reward – how the behaviour makes you feel

Here is an example: You get home from work (reminder), you go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine (routine) and sit down to drink it on the sofa watching something you enjoy (reward). When you get the reward, in this case the pleasure of a glass of wine and a relaxing sit down, you wish to repeat the action with the next reminder.

People have to change habits throughout their lives, but finding the motivation to change gets harder as we get older. To break bad habits, the obvious solution would be to just not drink the wine, but this is difficult because the issue isn’t the wine itself, it’s the whole habit. To kick the habit, first examine the triggers.

Triggers tend to fit into five categories. These are: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. In our scenario the triggers are probably something like this.

-          Location: front door

-          Time: 6.30pm

-          Emotional state: Stressed, tired from commute

-          Other people: Partner, also stressed after work

-          Immediately preceding action: Arriving home

Pay attention to these triggers using these categories for a few days, and take note of anything that repeatedly crops up. To make a change, try and make a list of other rewards that you enjoy. The aim is not to punish yourself for wanting the pleasure you derive from the habit, but to choose rewards that still make you feel good without being unhealthy. Maybe instead of that glass of wine, a cup of fancy tea might be just as nice?

Once you’ve examined your routine, the reminder triggering your habit, and the reward you perceive, it is easier to work out what factors you can change, and which you can’t. Maybe instead of going straight home after work, you could go for a walk, take up a new hobby, or meet a friend for coffee. If you find that relaxation is your main reward for drinking the wine, try having a bath, talking to a friend, or doing some yoga instead. It may take some time and experimentation with different rewards and triggers, but when you know how habits work, it is far easier to break them. Good Luck!