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Why actions become habits and how you can break them

Having a drink after a stressful day is a common habit

Having a drink after a stressful day is a common habit

I knew in 2008 that I didn’t want to drink anymore, but I kept doing it for another four years. Why? After binge drinking most weekends during my 20’s, drinking alcohol had become a habit that I just couldn’t break straight away. Even though I’d slowed down considerably in my early 30’s, if a mate called to see if I wanted to have a big night out I found it hard to resist. Not because I was keen to get drunk, nothing could have been further from the truth, but because it’s what I’d always done and it was hard to fight that urge.

The reality is, by the time I realised it was time to quit in 2008, I:

  • Didn’t like the taste of alcohol
  • Hated the feeling of being drunk
  • Much preferred the sober me over the drunk me
  • Absolutely detested the inevitable hangover
  • Felt sick about the amount of money I’d spend every time I went out
  • Took several days to fully recover
  • Was very aware of the damage alcohol did to my body
  • Hated wasting days recovering on the couch instead of being out and about

Given this list, you’d think it would be easy to say “enough is enough” and quit right there on the spot. But breaking habits not quite that easy in reality, and I didn’t quit drinking until June 2012. Habitual behaviours are hard to break even if you know making changes will be better for you on a range of different levels. How many times after a big night out have you said “never again”, only to be back in the same pub behaving the same way a week later? Drinking alcohol, eating processed foods, watching Netflix instead of hitting the gym, and plenty of other destructive behaviours all become habits that you continue to do even when you don’t want to anymore.

What is a habit?

A large portion of the person you are right now is the sum of your habits. Are you overweight? It’s because of your habitual eating and exercise patterns (unless you are in the very small percentage of people with a medical condition). Do you struggle to form and maintain relationships? It’s because of your habitual behaviour and personality patterns. Are you flying up the corporate ladder? It’s because of your habitual work ethic and learning patterns. Your habits define almost everything you are and do

According to Google, a habit is:

  • A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
  • An addictive practice, especially one of taking drugs (alcohol is a highly addictive drug).
  • An automatic reaction to a specific situation.
Brushing your teeth is a very common habit

Brushing your teeth is a very common habit

Once you get into a routine of doing anything, and you continue to do it over a long period of time, it becomes a habit. The longer you do it the more unconscious it becomes and the harder it is to break. For example, my morning routine is the same almost every day, and when something gets in the way I really notice it. I have breakfast, take a shower, get dressed, brush my teeth and spray on some deodorant, always in that order. It’s like I’m on auto-pilot and if for some reason the order changes, I often have to stop and think for a moment what I need to do next.

I can break those habits down even further. I almost always dry myself exactly the same way after a shower (head, left arm, right arm, torso, left leg, right leg); if I recorded myself brushing my teeth I’m sure it would be very similar each day; and I always get dressed putting clothes on in the same order. I don’t think about these actions, but they’ve become such a habit that I do them the same way every time unconsciously.

How do habits form?

There is a three-part process to developing a habit – cue, trigger and reward. When something happens in the environment you’re inhabiting, it signals a cue in your brain. That cue then triggers a specific reaction (which is the habit) that will, in turn, elicit a reward. For example:

  1. Cue – get home from work feeling stressed
  2. Trigger – head to the refrigerator to grab a beer or glass of wine
  3. Reward – feel less stressed

Our decision making processes take place in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, yet habits are stored in the basal ganglia, the same place where emotions and memories are developed. So when a behaviour becomes automatic (i.e. a habit), it moves from the conscious and active prefrontal cortex to the unconscious basal ganglia.

Driving to work can become a rote learnt habit

Driving to work can become a rote learnt habit

Ever driven to work in the morning and not remember the journey? That’s because a lot of the journey has been completed by habit, with only critical decisions (i.e. those that avoid car accidents) being made consciously. The brain does this because it’s efficiently dealing with the extraordinary number of decisions it needs to make every day. There is only a certain amount of energy the brain has at its disposal, and it takes more energy to make a decision in the prefrontal cortex than it does to recall habits from the basal ganglia. So when the brain recognises a specific behaviour over a period of time, it is stored as a habit and more energy can be devoted to other mental activities.

Habits are hard to break

When you delete something from a hard drive, you don’t actually delete it. Instead, you just delete the pathway to the file, making it much more difficult to reach. That’s why if you delete something accidentally, you can recover it with the help of someone who knows how to reconnect the pathway.

It’s much the same way with habits. We don’t actually ever delete habits from our brain, but we can record new habits over the top of them. As such the best course of action is to replace your habit with a new one. That’s why you often see people with addictive personalities replacing one habit (e.g. binge eating late at night) with another (e.g. going to the gym every day). Habits require a repetitive process over time involving a cue, routine and reward. So if we wanted to change your habit of drinking after a stressful day, you could:

  1. Cue – get home from work feeling stressed
  2. Trigger – put on your training shoes and go for a run
  3. Reward – feel less stressed

By changing the trigger so that you get the same reward, you can overwrite an old habit to form a new one. This can be done for a whole range of habits you’ve formed over your lifetime. You can use this method to change habits relating to unhealthy eating, smoking, exercise, personal finances and relationships just to name a few.

Changing a habit

Being tired at work is a result of bad sleeping habits

Being tired at work is a result of bad sleeping habits

If you think you can just change a habit that has been years in the making with the click of your fingers, and replace it with a new habit without doing any work, you’re kidding yourself. It took me four years to break the drinking habit, because every time I woke up with a hangover my will to change got a little stronger. But it doesn’t have to be quite the lengthy and inefficient process I took.

By setting up visual cues and reminders, you can have far greater success when changing your habit. For example, I have a bad habit of staying up late at night even when I know I have to get up early the following morning (which is pretty much every day given I have a young son). I’ve been reading a lot lately about the importance of getting sufficient sleep for a whole host of health reasons. So instead of relying on willpower and memory to go to bed early, I’ve set a couple of reminders on my iPhone that are set to go off at the same time every day. I have one reminder set for 10.00pm that tells me I have 30 minutes to be in bed, and another at 10.30pm to tell me that I should be there by now. The reminder alarms going off on my phone is the cue I need to start forming new habits.

  1. Cue – reminder alarm goes off on my phone
  2. Trigger – go to bed
  3. Reward – get a good nights sleep and feel better the next day

What now?

Reflect on your habit and make a plan for change

Reflect on your habit and make a plan for change

There’s a great saying I’ve loved for many years, but even now I don’t always adhere to the principle of it;

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Pretty straightforward, but even when I knew I was going to have a hangover after a big night out, I’d still do it again and again. It seems like madness doesn’t it? Ask yourself “what is something I have always done, where the result is always something I don’t want”? I’ve been waking up tired most days since my son was born, but only now am I making changes to my sleeping habits so I wake up fresh and improve my overall health.

The great thing is there are strategies to break habits and create new ones.

  1. Choose one habit that will be easy to change – Enormous life-changing habits are difficult to break, and if you fail it could be difficult to recover from psychologically. By choosing one small habit and successfully changing it, you’ll have the confidence to attempt larger scale habit changes.
  2. Plan how you’ll change – Don’t rely on your willpower and memory to make the change, it’s a recipe for failure. Instead get specific about the cues that elicit the undesirable habits, and plan what your new response will be. Is it a specific action, or time of the day? Make sure someone is holding you accountable, and devise a reward system.
  3. Don’t set a time goal – Research varies greatly on how long it takes to form new habits, with anywhere from 15 days to a year suggested as the ideal time period. Instead, continue consciously creating a new habit until it becomes automatic to you, consistently is the key.
  4. The reward system – The best way to reward yourself is to simply enjoy the new habit. If you’re actually enjoying the new behaviour, it will become habit much quicker. Tell people you know and trust about any success you’re having. Recognition from those whose opinion matters to you will be a great motivator. Reward yourself with something you enjoy straight after you’ve acted out the new habit, such as only watching your favourite TV show after you’ve flossed your teeth.
  5. Consistently evaluate the plan – Making habitual change is difficult, and you may fail initially. That doesn’t mean you should give up. Think back to the plan you devised, is there anything you need to adjust to increase your chances of success? What’s working, what isn’t? You’re probably not going to get it right straight away, after all, everyone is different. But once you do you can repeat the process for other habits you’d like to change.

Good luck, and let me know in the comments below your strategies for habit and behavioural change that has worked for you.

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