Habits and how to change them

What are habits?

Habits are behaviours we perform almost automatically. They are not  usually something we have to spend any time thinking about, we just do them, for example cleaning our teeth regularly.  Bad habits can become destructive, and these kinds of habits require our attention if we are to live healthy and fulfilling lives. An example of a bad habit could be the way we automatically open the fridge when we return home, looking for comfort food or drink to ease the stress of the day.

This applies equally in our working lives as much as our personal lives. I have written before about the habit of responding ‘yes, but’ to new suggestions and this is an example of an habitual response we can get into.

It is important to reflect upon the habits we have developed, the consequences of these  and review those we want to change.

Changing habits

Before we consider how to change habits it is useful to consider how they have developed in the first place.

Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, talks about the cycle of cue, routine and reward as being the process by which habits are developed. I prefer to talk about triggers, action and reward which mean the same thing.

In the example above, a trigger would be returning home from work, the action would be opening the fridge door and the reward would be taking out that bottle of chardonnay and drinking a glass. This becomes self-reinforcing when the reward is a valued reward that brings some satisfaction. The habit then builds in strength.

If we are to change a habit, we need to break this process.

Ways in which to change habits

Taking the three aspects of the process:

We can change the trigger – OK, so returning home from work is not something we can change, however maybe there is a routine here which can be changed. The timing perhaps, or the mood we are in when we return. Changing our journey home for example may be enough to break out of the routine nature of our return. Dealing with the stress we are suffering at work and not bringing it home would be the ultimate solution here.

We can change the action – that is the way in which we respond to the trigger. We need to set up a new routine. For example, when we enter our home rather than go to the fridge, we do something different. This may be putting on music or listening to a podcast, or sitting and meditating.

We can change the reward – So it is difficult for us not to open the fridge? Then have substitute products there, other than the delicious cakes or wine that we normally turn to. Find a non-alcoholic alternative, or a healthy snack and make a new habit out of this.

The thing with habits is that they are pretty enduring. They have served a purpose for us, for example helping us get over our stressful day. They can be difficult to change and they need persistence. The journey is often strewn with false starts and reversals. It is important to become consciously aware of our behaviour and to be consistent. A step backwards is not a reason to give up.

Other actions to take:

  • Deal with why we have the triggers in the first place, as in the above example of stress.
  • Keep a journal to help identify the triggers and actions that need to be changed and to keep tracck of  the progress we are making.
  • Find a buddy to share with to help reinforce the new behaviour.

In the book, Creativity Cycling I have written about how habits build into mindsets and why we should break out of them.

What advice can you share that can help others with their habit breaking?

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently published a book on creativity for leaders with Dr. Tracy Stanley, entitled Creativity Cycling .

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