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Make Or Break Time: How To Conquer Your Habits

6 min read
10/02/23 09:22

With another festive season done and dusted, many of us would have determinedly made some form of New Year's resolution only to have seen it fall by the wayside in January, despite the sincerity of our intentions. New Year’s resolutions are a time-honoured tradition for many people, but studies show that only about 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. So, why do so many people fail in their efforts to embed these positive changes despite the best of intentions?

One reason is that many people set unrealistic goals. They may be overly optimistic about what they can accomplish in the time frame they have set themselves, or they may not have a clear understanding of what it will take to achieve their desired outcome. For example, someone who wants to lose 15 kilograms in a year, may find that this goal is too aggressive and requires a significant lifestyle change that is difficult to sustain.

Another reason that New Year’s resolutions fail, is a lack of motivation, commitment and or accountability. It is easy to start the year with good intentions, but it is much harder to maintain that level of motivation as the year progresses. To be successful, people need to find ways to stay motivated, such as finding a workout partner, setting daily reminders or tracking their progress on a daily basis.

A third reason that New Year’s resolutions fail, is a lack of a clear plan or specific strategy. People may have a general idea of what they want to achieve, but without a clear plan and specific steps to get there, they are unlikely to succeed. Trying to build a new habit without establishing a process to support and embed the change, is likely to fail. To succeed we need to be able to break down our big goals in into smaller, manageable steps and to have a clear plan for how to accomplish each step.


How Habits are Formed


Habit formation is a process by which a behaviour becomes automatic or routine through repeated practice. This process plays a crucial role in shaping our daily lives, as habits often govern everything from the way we eat and exercise, to how we interact with others and manage stress. Understanding the neural mechanisms underlying habit formation can help us to better understand how we form habits and how to break them.

The process of habit formation is thought to involve several key neural structures, including the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. The basal ganglia, a group of structures located deep within the brain, is thought to play a central role in habit formation by helping to automate repetitive behaviours. This is done by connecting the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and planning, to the motor cortex, which controls movement.

As a behaviour is repeated, the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the motor cortex become stronger, allowing the behaviour to be executed more efficiently. At the same time, the hippocampus, a structure involved in memory and spatial navigation, begins to play a less active role in controlling the behaviour. This shift in neural activity is thought to be what allows a behaviour to become a habit.

One of the key features of habit formation is that it is sensitive to context. For example, a person may have a habit of snacking on junk food while watching TV, but this behaviour may not occur in other situations, such as when they are at work or with friends. This is because the hippocampus, which is responsible for the creation of context-dependent memories, is less active in habit formation.

As a habit becomes more ingrained, the neural pathways that support it become more permanent, making it harder to change the behaviour. This is why habits are often difficult to break, as they involve a rewiring of the brain. To break a habit, one must engage the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in the process and create new context-dependent memories that are incompatible with the old habit.

Another important aspect of habit formation is the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reward. Dopamine is released in response to pleasurable or rewarding experiences, and is thought to play a key role in reinforcing behaviours that lead to those experiences. For example, when a person eats a sugary snack, dopamine is released, which reinforces the behaviour and makes it more likely that the person will eat sugary snacks in the future.

This cycle is called a habit loop and understanding how habit loops worked is important if you want to break or build a habit. 


Habit Loops


A habit loop is a psychological process that describes how habits are formed and maintained. It consists of three parts: cue, routine, and reward.

  1. Cue: A trigger that signals the start of a habit. It can be an internal trigger like hunger or thirst, or an external trigger like the time of day, a location, or the presence of a specific person. The cue triggers a "Craving" for the reward and provides the motivation to take action to get the reward.
  2. Routine: The behaviour or action that is performed in response to the cue. This is the habit itself, and can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. Reward: The positive reinforcement that reinforces the habit and makes it more likely to be repeated in the future. The reward can be something tangible, like a food treat, or something intangible, like a feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction.

By understanding the habit loop, people can identify their own habits and work to change them by altering the cue, routine, or reward. For example, if someone wants to break the habit of snacking on junk food while watching TV in the evening, they could try changing the routine (e.g. going for an after dinner walk or eating a healthier snack), or the reward (e.g. feeling satisfied after exercising or eating a healthier snack instead of junk food).


Making Or Breaking Habits


Some of the habits that people often want to embed in their daily lives, or to get rid of, include:

  • Eating a healthy diet and cutting out processed or high-sugar foods.
  • Exercising regularly, such as going for a daily walk or committing to a specific workout routine.
  • Getting enough sleep each night and establishing a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Reducing time spent on social media or electronic devices.
  • Practicing mindfulness or meditation.
  • Drinking more water and less sugary drinks.
  • Being more disciplined with their money and sticking to a budget.
  • Reading more books or learning a new skill.
  • Quitting smoking or cutting down on alcohol consumption.
  • Decluttering their living spaces.
  • Being more productive and managing time effectively.

As we've seen, simply wanting to make or break a habit is no guarantee of success. To give yourself the best chance at truly embedding the habit so that it becomes an automatic behaviour, it needs to be performed consistently over a period of time. Whilst the time required to embed a behaviour and create a habit will depend on the type of habit you are trying to form, having a clear understanding of your end goal and why you want to create the habit, supported with a clear and structured plan of action is crucial to creating any new habit.

If you are looking to make or break a particular habit, you might like to follow a process incorporating the following steps:

  1. Identify the habit you want to change: Clearly define the behaviour you want to change and why it is important to you, the person you are and the person you want to be.
  2. Set a specific and measurable goal: Establish a specific, measurable goal for the desired habit change.
  3. Create a plan: Determine the steps necessary to achieve the goal and create a plan that outlines the actions you will take. Start small and try to make it as easy as possible to incorporate into your daily life and adapt existing habits where you can.
  4. Track your progress: Keep a record of your progress and evaluate your results regularly.
  5. Create accountability: Find someone who will hold you accountable or create a system of self-reflection and evaluation. If you miss a day or break a streak, don't become despondent and give up, just commit to not breaking the streak two days in a row. 
  6. Stay motivated: Maintain your motivation by focusing on the benefits of the new habit and reminding yourself of why you started the process. Practise visualising what achieving your goal looks like and feels like.
  7. Be flexible and persistent: Be open to making changes to the plan as needed and persist in your efforts even if you experience setbacks. Have a growth mindset and look at setbacks as crucial opportunities to learn from.

Remember, changing a habit or creating a new habit can be difficult, as you literally need to re-wire your brain to create a new automatic behaviour. It takes time and effort but by being clear about your goals and by following a structured process, you can increase your chances of success.


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