Changing bad habits. Is there a secret formula for success?
I believe so. Your life today is essentially the result of your habits, both good and bad. Changing bad habits can be a challenging and long path to success. Studies by neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists, and others indicate that from 40 to 95 percent of all behaviour; how you think, what you say, and what you do, falls into the habit category. Even if you are conservative, you are on automatic pilot about half of your life. Furthermore, to change a habit, can take anything from 66 days which means consistency is required. Moreover, consistency is a trait that is lacking in many people’s plans to achieve success.
What is a habit?
Habits, as defined by cognitive psychologists are:
“Automatic behaviours triggered by situational cues.”
Breathing, for example, is done with little or no conscious thought, which is a good thing! In comparison, when you learnt to drive it took much conscious effort and focus. However, once learned it becomes almost an instinct. I bet you can drive to your destination now with little or no conscious effort? You may even find yourself arriving at your destination and almost ‘waking up’ wondering how you got here safely? This is because driving has become a habit, and your habits are run in your subconscious mind, the part of your mind that really runs most of your life.
You simply use programs already installed in your subconscious mind, regardless of whether they take you towards or away from your intended goal or destination.
Your subconscious mind is a million times more powerful than your conscious mind
When did you last have to consciously think about how to tie your shoelaces, dry dishes or hang the washing out? While it’s great that you don’t have to remember how to do mundane things in life, there is a downside when it comes to trying to change your habits. Especially when related to health and the achievement of your goals.
In conclusion, when we do a specific behaviour and repeat it often, over time it becomes a habit. This applies to your thoughts as well. What this means most of the time you are not aware of the constant chatter in your head. More importantly, with around 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts every day, many of which are the same as yesterday, they are responsible for steering the course of your life.
Your thoughts of habit are just as powerful, perhaps more so than your habits of behaviour? When you change your habitual thoughts, you can change your life. Helpful habits can help you transform the ordinary into extraordinary.
Because habits are run by your powerful subconscious mind, which is a million times more powerful than your conscious mind, changing bad habits is not easy. In fact, it can be really hard and for many, a huge struggle. Mainly as people go about it the wrong way.
‘We first make our habits and then our habits make us.’ John Dryden
Why do we form habits?
As a result, this allows us to devote mental energy to create amazing things, advancing technology and improving structures in our physical world.
Because we repeat these behaviours or thoughts, they become imprinted in our neural pathways. And as mentioned earlier, we run most of our lives from our subconscious mind – on autopilot. Consequently, hey, presto, we find ourselves doing the same old thing again. Telling ourselves the same old story or excuse as yesterday, letting another opportunity slip by. Or, acting out habitual behaviours such as grabbing a takeaway when we had promised to cook something healthy. Perhaps for you, it’s having another glass of wine when you clearly said you would only have one? In a work context, it could be leaving that difficult letter until tomorrow yet again. I am sure you have many examples from your life?
Is the real secret for changing bad habits merely a matter of time?
The topic of how long it takes to change a habit is widely discussed. While 21 – 30 days was once cited as a common time-frame, there isn’t much empirical evidence to prove this. Furthermore, if this was true, how come so many people never succeed at making their habits stick? Thirty-day challenges are common, especially in the field of exercise. While they may work for some habits, I know many people fail in this time frame, again and again. Moreover, how often do you know what to do yet don’t do it? To help avoid not doing the things you know you should, creating helpful habits is paramount to your success.
Recent research led by a team at the University College London says that it takes on average 66 days to create a new habit. However, part of the success of creating a new habit depends on the person’s level of commitment and desire to change. More importantly, it helps when you understand the science of how a habit is formed. Charles Duhigg explains this exceptionally well in his book, The Power of Habit.
How long does changing bad habits take?
There is no universal one fits all time frame for how long it takes to create a new habit. We are all different. I have aided smokers to quit in one session numerous times and people to create a habit of daily exercise in two months and more. I also know people who have failed numerous times to break a bad habit and create a new one. Others who took months to change, because if they were honest, they weren’t ready. Moreover, New Year Resolutions have about a 93% failure rate. It also depends on what the new habit is. If you are changing toxic thinking while 21 days may form a new thought, it takes longer to automise the thought so it becomes a new habit.
If you don’t commit 100% to change, you are likely to slip back into your old ways as you didn’t automate the new behaviour so it never became an established habit. When this happens many people end up battling themselves. Wondering why they failed again and berating themselves for not succeeding. This only helps lock in the defeat more. What you resist persists and what you focus on grows. A more gentle approach is required, coupled with a conscious, determined decision and intentional action. Awareness of your habit, what triggers it, and what reward you are seeking from this behaviour is important. Then a longer, slower yet consistent time frame with deliberate intentional practice.
Changing bad habits permanently takes commitment
To fully embrace the habit of exercise, if you have always hated it, will probably take a few months. Changing eating habits to permanently implementing a healthy food lifestyle may take six months. Provided you stick with it, are consistent with doing your new behaviour, believe in it, want it and keep purposefully doing the new behaviour it will eventually become etched in as new neural pathways. Consistency is a critical ingredient to create a new habit.
Here are some tips to help you become skilled in the art of changing bad habits
- Build a foundation to make a clear 100% decision to change.
- Why do you want to change? Get crystal clear as to why you want to change.
- What habit are you wanting to change? Clearly identify the bad habit (negative behaviour) you want to change.
- Is it a small one or is it complex?
- Does it involve a total lifestyle change?
- Rather than focusing on a time frame, I believe what is more important is what is behind your desire for changing bad habits.
- How does this habit currently serve you in your life?
- What triggers this habit?
- And what is the reward, think feeling, you are seeking?
Identifying the benefits of holding onto the habit is a vital step
- Write down all the benefits of holding onto this habit (yes there are some.) If you can’t find any you haven’t spent long enough on this question. For example, the benefit of someone not losing weight might be that they can stay safe and comfortable. It might impact their current relationship if they ‘changed.’ One client I worked with had a previous partner who became jealous when she lost weight and feared she would leave him. This created a big rift in their relationship. Consequently, this old fear created a deep benefit for her to not lose weight. Indeed, many of our benefits are drawn from old limiting beliefs and fears that are no longer true.
Write down the positive benefits you will get by changing your habit
- Next, write down all the benefits of changing your unwanted habit. With each one, read it out and connect fully with how you feel. Make sure it inspires you, or at the very least you feel some sort of ‘good’ feeling.
- Imagine yourself as the person who has changed this habit. Step out into the future and fully connect with that new person.
- Write down a plan for changing your habit. Get it out of your head and onto a piece of paper.
- Choose one small behaviour that feels easy and doable and schedule it into your diary. Scheduling is important.
- A critical key is to start small. For example, if you want to make exercise a part of your life but have always hated it, commit to walking for twenty minutes three days a week. Later you can increase the intensity and frequency.
- Commit to this new behaviour and visualise yourself doing this new behaviour and being successful.
- Celebrate and acknowledge your wins. Much of what you do is motivated by reward. Furthermore, when you acknowledge and tick off every time you do this new behaviour, you will keep the flame of motivation flickering.
- Eventually, over time, you will be able to identify which habits are keystone habits. More importantly, they are like the scaffolding that support other habits that build to your overall success in life.
Decide exactly what habit you would like to change or create
Once you have decided, apply the above steps to become skilled at learning the art of changing bad habits. Now, it’s over to you to decide exactly what habit you would like to change. Furthermore, when you start to be consistent you have a critical ingredient for creating a mindset for success.
In conclusion, we are creatures of habits and our habits determine our results. Working on changing bad habits, creating helpful habits, being consistent, are the foundations of success. Moreover, I guarantee it will save you energy, frustration and failure. Watch your results take an astounding leap in the direction of your goals and desires. You never know, you might even surprise yourself and do it in record time.
If you would like some help changing your behaviours and habits, please reach out to me.
About the Author
Mandy Napier is a Global High Performance Mindset Coach who is dedicated to supporting high achievers fulfil their potential and achieve extraordinary results professionally and personally. Transformations are the norm, and results guaranteed.
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