CAN’T HELP MYSELF. BAD HABITS
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”
- William James, 1892.
Can you change your bad habits? The bad ones that see you smoke, overeat, drink too much alcohol and coffee and take no exercise?
Can you create new habits that will get you off the couch or away from the wretched computer and doing the things you know you should be doing?
Well, there is good and bad news… but, happily, the latest research confirms that anything’s possible. Read on.
We humans are habitual creatures. Think of how many habits we have in any given day.
The time we like to wake; when we take a shower; in what order we prefer to dress, do our hair and makeup; when we drink that first cup of coffee; what we eat for breakfast; which road we take to drive to work…
All of these rituals may seem like well-considered decisions but they’re merely habits, says award-winning New York Times investigative journalist Charles Duhigg in his new best-selling book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change.
The book is a compendium of the latest from neurologists, psychologists, sociologists and marketers and makes for a fascinating read.
We need habits to function otherwise we would be paralysed by myriad decisions every waking moment.
In fact, the hallmark of a habit is that our brain activity decreases when we engage in routine. It “powers down” to save energy.
Habit means we do things automatically. We think less. We go to screensaver.
However, Duhigg says, by directing our attention to these habitual behaviours, we can break them – even the bad ones – and replace them with new ways of going about our business. No-one, he argues, should have to be perpetually in the grip of a bad habit.
The secret is to understand and observe the “habit loop”.
This is hardly a ground-breaking observation, and there have been detractors that say this advice is of limited use in the damaged brains of serious substance abusers, however, Duhigg analyses a habit this way:
“First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional.
Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering.
Over this time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue routine, rewards – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually… a habit is born.”
By breaking down a habit into its component parts, you can fiddle with the gears, says Duhigg.
But here’s the thing.
In forming any new habit we have to build a new neural path in our brains and this takes concentration and repetition.
The bad news is that those old habit pathways never go away. They are now encoded in the actual structure of our brains.
That’s why it’s so hard to break old habits. They’re just lurking there waiting for the old cues and rewards.
Duhigg says that to form new habits you have to become your own psychotherapist – stand back and monitor your behavior, then change it. And sometimes that may take some ingenuity.
You have to outsmart yourself. There are five ways we stay stuck, he says.
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