How to change any habit in 5 easy steps

habit-change

We’ve all had times when we found ourselves doing something we know we shouldn’t. It’s not even a conscious decision most of the time. Something sets you off and the next thing you know, you have a cigarette in your mouth or you find yourself staring down at an empty pie tin. You immediately start beating yourself up, swearing that this is the last time, only to find that your resistance to change is stronger than your willpower, and you find yourself doing the exact same thing later that day.

Research has shown that our habits go through the same cycle every time we engage in them. There is a “trigger” or something in the environment that causes you to engage in a habit.  There is the habit itself.  And then there is the reward you get form engaging in the habit.

habit-change

A great example of this is the famous experiment by Ivan Pavlov, where he trained his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by consistently ringing the bell right before they were fed. This caused the dogs to associate the bell with the reward of delicious food. They would hear the bell, eat, and then feel satisfied. The bell being the trigger, eating being the habit, and a full belly being the reward.

But what if you want to change that habit into something new and more empowering?

Switching habits is more straight forward than you might think. It’s really just a few easy steps. The difficult part is staying consistent long enough for the new habit to replace the old one.  You’ll have resistance to change, no doubt about it.  But your level of resistance is determined by how deeply ingrained the habit is.Habits are like muscles. The more you feed into them, the stronger they become. And to replace an old habit with a new one, you have to starve off the old habit long enough for the new one to over power the old.  This takes time, and willpower, but the process is fairly simple.

1) Identify the habit

To minimize resistance to change, first you need to identify the habit you want to replace. This probably sounds silly and overly basic, but it is important that you have a clear idea what the habit you want gone is. This can be over eating, smoking, sleeping in, or any number of things.

2) Identify your triggers

The second thing you need to do to minimize resistance to change is to identify what got you to engage in the habit in the first place. If your habit is smoking, maybe you saw someone in a movie smoking, or you saw someone whip a cigarette out of a fresh pack, and that sparked the habit loop. The trigger can be any number of things, and there doesn’t have to be just one.

3) Identify your reward

After you know what your habit is and what sets it off, the third thing you need to do to minimize resistance to change is to become clear on what you’re getting from it. Again, if you smoke, maybe your getting a hit of relaxation, or a way for you to socialize and connect to people, maybe even a way for you to get away out of a situation. Whatever it is, make sure you have a strong understanding of what you are getting form engaging in the habit you want to replace.

4) switch the habit

After you have identified the 3 parts of your habit loop, all you have to do now is replace the old habit with a new one, all while keeping the trigger and reward the same. To use the smoking example one more time, lets say you’ve identified the trigger as the sight of a cigarette, and your reward as the feeling of relaxation you experience after smoking.
Now what you need to do is find a new habit that produces the same reward, and start associating it with the trigger from the old habit. For example, maybe stretching relaxes you, or some deep breathing. Now the next time you see someone whip our a fresh cigarette, you need to recognize the trigger, and then simply inject your replacement habit in the old habits place, allowing yourself to feel the reward of relaxation as you engage in your new habit.

5) Last but not least, Be consistent

So far this all makes changing habits sound easy, it’s not… Old habits die hard.  Overcoming resistence to change is going to take some willpower. Like I said earlier, a habit is like a muscle. If you want that muscle to become weak,  you’re going to need to starve it off.  And in the case of a habit, long enough for a new habit to take it’s place. The steps are simple, but the execution is where 90% of your effort will be spent, but as long as you have the rest of the recipe right, it makes actually replacing an old habit much more straight forward.

Habits are unconscious actions. Research has been done to show how when you are engaging in a habit next to no brain function is required compared to what is required for an unfamiliar task. This is how our brains work. As you become more familiar with a new task, less and less brain activity is required to complete it, and on the flip side, as you spend more time away from a task, the level of brain activity required goes up, making it more difficult to carry out. This can be used to your advantage as long as you are consistent with replacing your old habits with new ones that give you the same reward.

Now go hack your brain.

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