How to break a habit
Do you have a habit that you would like to break or would you like to introduce a new habit?
You might find that when you drive in the driveway after work the mind says: ‘wine and snacks’. You might find it hard to at times stop yelling at your children, or not getting caught in the disapproval of how your partner eats. Or perhaps you have tried to start exercising and it lasts a couple of weeks and then you get too busy, you break the new habit, and back to default position?
Habits can sound a bit like an old cardigan, grey and a little boring. However, our lives are often run by them and it is through habits and habitual ways of thinking and doing that we shape our life experience and ultimately our destiny. Habits shape us in a positive way through healthy habits, while the not so healthy habits do the opposite. When you change your lifestyle you change your genes. When adopting healthy habits you turn on the genes that prevent disease and turn off those that promote heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.
Our experience of ourselves can be seen as a pattern of habitual responses (neuropathways) in our brain. We create ourselves by tending to feel, think, say and do the same kind of things over and over again, while we ignore other things.
We become who we are now through what we have experienced in the past. Who you are today creates who you will become in the future.
So the act of breaking habits in itself is a process of liberation, opening up to choices and opening up to possibilities.
The tweaking, changing or introduction of one little habit can potentially have huge impact on our lives. Think how much brushing your teeth is a habit and what would happen if you didn’t do it. In a similar way, the little habit of a gratitude practice at the end of the day, is like drip-feeding into a positive life bank account.
When dealing with habits there are a few useful things to know. Freud identified ‘simultaneous associations’, and from neuroscience we know that the neurons that fire together wire together. We link experiences or perceptions together; when we repeatedly have wine straight after getting home, the mind gets trained to link the driveway, the entrance way, the kicking off the shoes or the time of the day to the activity of drinking wine.
What might be some of your simultaneous associations? I found one the other day as I was writing a research paper that took all weekend. The mind starting saying: ‘it is ok to reward yourself with some yummy treats while this is going on, you deserve it.’ It was an old habit that surfaced from my university days. You have probably noticed associations around music – you hear the song and you are back in the eighties just like that!
These associations are tough to break, and to break them we have to be aware and we have to think of a way to outsmart the habit. You can do this by changing your behavioral association. So when it comes to the driveway and wine, don’t drive in the driveway, instead park on the street, go for a walk immediately after work, replace wine with another healthier drink that you enjoy.
If you have been doing mindfulness for a while, then you will notice the pull of a habit as a body sensation. You can then shift your attention to the body sensation of the habit and keep it there. Stay with that sensation in the body and just remain curious of how it changes as you give it your undivided attention.
At the basis of all habits is either wanting to avoid something or to feel good. Be curious around what that is; it might be a very short ‘feel good’ for long term pain and problem.
To introduce a new habit, the easiest thing is to link it to something you already do. Make it pleasant and easy, prepare for the new habit. Put out the running clothes the night before so they are there waiting for you, buy the healthy foods that you love, so they tempt you rather than the chocolate in the cupboard.
Feed the habit change with a clear intention: ‘I am mind training every morning’, or ‘I am taking good care of my dear body’.
Finally, don’t berate yourself when you don’t get it right the first time. Changing habits is a bumpy road, an ongoing experience of doing the new habit, not doing it, reflecting and adjusting. Keep the attitude curious, kind and spacious in this process.