Habits – the Good, the Bad, The Ugly

Have you ever thought of why it is so hard to change a habit?
Well a habit is a behaviour that is so wired into your system, it seems effortless. Take brushing your teeth, using a spoon or buttoning your shirt. You do not really have to think about how to perform the task. This is because we have repeated the action so many times our neurology is strengthened to perform the task without a lot of active thought.

Changing habitsHabits – the good the bad, the ugly

The good thing about habits is that once trained, our lower brain and or muscle “memory” has been trained to perform an action without a lot of thinking. If you do not believe me, try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Much more work, feeling clumsy – Yes? on a daily basis, with habits, our minds can be actively busy with other thoughts while our body performs the “whatever”.


The Bad

The bad comes into effect when the habit no longer serves us. When coaching I hear: “Dr Liz it’s so hard to break a habit”, “I have to think about what change I want to make all the time”, “It takes effort”. And yes is my answer to all.
An effort is required as we have to change our neurology and neural networks. As an analogy, think of a pristine hill glistening with fresh snow and you are the first tobogganer on it. On your run you can change your route to most any direction. Others arrive and head down making new tracks with many overlapping. But with time, there are many runs used again and again. You get into ruts from runs that have been travelled over and over. Notice how much harder it is to break free of the well used run once on it to make a new one?

This is similar to habits in your nervous system. In neuroscience there is a saying – “Nerves that fire together wire together” meaning nerves (which create actions) when repeated, associate and are strengthened. The opposite is also true. Nerves that are not used in combination, do not wire together. Thus to make the connection, it requires training, repetition and [the dreaded] effort.

The Ugly

So when you want to change a behaviour you need to i) catch yourself – ideally before the behaviour starts, ii) actively think about the alternate replacement behaviour and ii) perform that different action. All of this requires thought, effort and follow through. But with enough practice and persistence, you will re-wire your neurology to eventually make that new behaviour a habit. Not doing the old “thing” will allow you to unhook and weaken that behaviour.

Solutions to Ponder
Stay mindful versus being mindless.

Remove yourself from your old triggers. For example: if I watch TV by myself I want to snack. If I play the piano, I do not snack. So if I want to change my habit of snacking, I play the piano or watch TV with others.

Have helpful relationships. I encountered a client who was in overeaters anonymous that after they had meetings, they went out for dinner? OK, is this not like an alcoholic going to a bar? And while I am grossly simplifying a complex problem my point is why not create a new healthy behaviour entirely like going for a walk – even if only 100 meters? When we surround ourselves with people who have healthy habits, it becomes easier to take those habits on. There are times we need to move on from co-dependent relationships.

Search supportive groups – like ex-smokers for a smoker. Or a learn to run group if you want to run a 10K. Dog parks and training sessions for training ourselves with our dog. Or people learning English as a second language for non-English speaking immigrants.

Do not put yourself into weak moments, like the TV example above or grocery shopping while you are hungry – do it when full and you will likely buy healthier food. Better yet, stay only in the outside aisles of the grocery store. Ever notice what’s out there? Frozen section, produce and meats mostly – the good stuff… Avoid the trappings of the middle processed food sections.

If under stress – rather than going for the drink or anti-depressant hit an hour of yoga or meditation. Change a life draining habit for a life-giving one.

Let me know what habits you have changed and how you’ve changed them.
Love to know.



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