Habits form the fabric of our lives. They are a way for our brain to preserve its energy to tackle new, more challenging tasks. We wake up, shower, brush our teeth, and have breakfast often with little to no thought. We go to work or school using the same roadmap we always do, rarely deviating from that path. It’s only when there’s some sort of breakdown in our routine that we really focus on each step. A strike by subway workers, and we have to consider a new way to get to work. A new job requires the creation of new habits and organizational systems. Being a new parent shifts our egocentric routines to revolve around our newborn child. Lab work results forces us to reconsider our eating habits, and so on. So how does one create or change habits? Brain science can help make your efforts more effective.
10 Ways to Change or Create New Habits
- Analyze your patterns. If you’re trying to change a habit, whether it is how much fast food you eat or how often you chew on your pen, you have to take a close look at the circumstances around it. Experts recommend keeping a journal for a few weeks to write down your actions, feeling for the triggers that feed the habit you want to change. You may notice that you chew on your pen when you’re concentrating at work, or that you always stop for fast food after a stressful day.
- Find positive alternatives. Your brain responds better to positive action. If you say: “I’m going to stop eating fast food”, your brain will not cooperate. If you think instead: “I’m going to reward myself with a colorful fruit salad, or trying a new food”, you’re more likely to succeed.
- Make a plan. Visualization is a way for our brain to rehearse possible scenarios and safely work through them. Take the time to imagine successfully changing your habit or creating a new one. And then, think of all the possible obstacles that might get in your way. Go through each one, problem-solving ways to deal with them for a positive outcome.
- Enlist your support system. We are social creatures. We achieve great outcomes when we are socially connected and well supported. Talk to family, friends and co-workers about what you’re trying to achieve. They can support you by sharing their ideas and providing moral support when you need it.
- Pampering Change. Impulse control is strongest when we are rested and we manage our stress well. Respect your body’s need for sleep, and you’ll be more likely to stick to your resolution. Manage your stress level by setting boundaries and allowing time in your daily routine for relaxation.
- Small steps. Even if the habit you’re trying to create is on a large scale, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Look at the small steps involved, and commit to changing some of the stepping stones that lead towards your goal. For example, if I want to lose 20 lbs, I am more likely to succeed if I analyze what might be contributing to my extra weight, and then commit to changing a small manageable part of it. I can decide to stop drinking soda, and instead drink bubbly carbonated water when I crave my usual soft-drink. Once that is mastered, I can work on another step.
- Forgive and carry on. We are very hard on ourselves. When people don’t meet their own expectations, they tend to use all or nothing thinking. We are more generous at forgiving others than ourselves. Accept that we all have good days and bad days. Failure is inevitable if we judge ourselves harshly or do not accept our imperfections. Ultimately, the most important factor that contributes to one’s success is grit, or the ability to stick to your goals and passions.
- New habits take time. It takes a minimum of two months to form a new habit. Patience and consistency are key.
- Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. Our brain has a bias towards action. We seek to be empowered. Respecting that bias allows for a more positive outcome. When deciding to tackle changing a habit or creating a new one, select effective ways to promote the change you seek. It’s more likely to stick.
- Look at your environment. Habits, both negative and positive ones, stick like glue with the right environmental triggers. Analyze and problem-solve how your environment might be contributing to the habits you’re trying to create or eliminate. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, give your pantry a healthy make-over and stop buying foods you can’t resist. If you don’t have them in your house or office, you will not be eating them. If you’re trying to go to bed earlier but your email and social media activities prevent you from doing so, declare your bedroom a technology free zone and read a book in bed instead of being on the computer.
Changing or creating habits is not easy, but having an understanding of the mechanics involved helps on the road toward reaching our goals.
Photo Credit: Julia Webb Thank You!!!
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