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How to Change Unhealthy Habits

Nothing is stronger than habit.

Simply put, a habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern. Every habit, no matter how simple or complex, has the same structure, which we call the "habit loop." There is a cue or a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional behavior. Finally, there is a reward. Once you understand how habit loops work, you can start changing them.


Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. Studies have found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions, but habits. And though each habit has relatively little impact on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to people, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise and so on: they all have enormous influence on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.


Think about when you woke up this morning. What did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email or grab a donut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Which route did you drive to work? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the TV?


All of those decisions weren't really choices at all. They were habits. And to change habits that are considered bad or harmful to your growth, you can’t just extinguish the bad habits. Rather, to change a bad pattern, you must insert a new routine into the habit loop.


Of course, that’s easier said than done. Habits don’t change without a fight. So, to insert a new routine, it should be triggered by the old cue, and deliver the old reward. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.


The trick to getting rid of unhealthy habits is to stop justifying our poor choices and rewrite the script so we default to where we want to be. Although positive and affirmative self-talk is powerful, I am not going to whitewash today’s message with unhelpful clichés—which are about as useful as saying “just relax” to someone having a panic attack. Thus, “Just think positively,” or “Flex your willpower muscle” are not on my list of steps towards change. Instead, let’s dive into a really meaningful, habit-changing discussion.


First, love yourself into change that you want to see. This concept is simple, but often not utilized to the best of its ability. Use some compassion with yourself and notice that your unhealthy behavior is probably an alert that something is off in your life. But, you have to love yourself enough to make some changes. Don’t wait until you hit “rock bottom” to have to make the change.


There are certain steps that you can take to change these habits before it gets to the point where you feel like there’s no way out.

  1. Identify the habits you want to change. Be honest with yourself here. You don't have to beat yourself up, but at the same time, you don't want to ignore the things that you really need to change.

  2. Look at what you are getting out of it. In other words, how is your habit serving you? This doesn’t have to be a long, complex process. You’ll figure it out and can come up with some great ideas about how to create healthier habits and produce better outcomes for yourself.

  3. Honor your own wisdom. No matter what, your wisdom knows what habits aren't healthy for you. Use that wisdom to build something into your schedule that will provide what you really want. Realize you do have the answers and are capable of doing something different.

  4. Choose something to replace the unhealthy habit. Just being aware that you need change isn't enough because it doesn't address the root cause of the behavior you want to replace. When you do something different to replace an unhealthy habit, acknowledge to yourself that you are doing it differently. You need to bring whatever it is that is subconscious to the conscious mind so that you can emphasize your ability to change. It can be as simple as saying to yourself, “Look at that. I made a better choice.”

  5. Remove triggers. This can be people, places, and/or things. Remember that you end up being like the five people you hang out with most. Look at who those people are: Do they inspire you or do they drag you down?

  6. Visualize yourself changing. This can really retrain your brain and in this case, you want to start to think differently about your ability to change. Therefore, spend some time every day envisioning yourself with new, more beneficial habits. This kind of visualization really works. The now familiar idea that “nerves that fire together wire together” is based on the idea that the more you think about something, and do it, the more it becomes wired in your brain. Your default choice can actually be a healthier one for you.

  7. Monitor your negative self-talk. The refrain in your brain can seriously affect your default behaviors. So when you catch yourself being negative towards yourself, reframe it and then redirect it. Redirecting is when you add to your negative self-talk with something that makes you focus on the solution and not the problem.

  8. Take baby steps, if necessary. Even if you can’t fully follow through with a new habit right away, do something small to keep yourself on track.

  9. Accept that you will sometimes falter. This is an inevitable truth. We all falter. We all make mistakes. Habits don’t change overnight. Love yourself each time you do and remind yourself that you are human.

  10. Know that it will take time. Habits usually take several weeks to change. You have to reinforce that bundle of nerves in your brain to change your default settings.

Bring this process to your awareness by writing it down. It is very easy to forget a new plan that is conceived with best intentions, but never reinforced. Therefore, for the best chance of success, take 10 - 15 minutes to plan out your new habit on paper, your computer, or your phone. Just make sure its written down and becomes tangible and real and not some abstract idea in your head.

And remember, you can do this.


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