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Breaking Bad Habits

Why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to replace bad habits with good ones? The doctrine of self-control has been promoted for decades, despite the fact that researchers at Yale and elsewhere have shown that the brain networks associated with self-control (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) are the first to go “offline” when faced with triggers such as stress. Professionals are taught to pass self-control rhetoric on to patients. “Need to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Trying to quit smoking? Stop cold turkey or use a nicotine replacement.” In the real World though, this just doesn't work so lets take a look at three steps that can help you break a bad habit 🧠


A woman smoking looking out of her window

Self-control theories have missed something critical: reward-based learning is based on rewards, not behaviours. How rewarding a behaviour is drives how likely we are to repeat that behaviour in the future, and this is why self-control as an approach to breaking habits often fails. Whilst most research has been focussed primarily on changing health-related habits, these steps are also highly relevant to the workplace too. This strategy can help you boost your productivity, morale, and overall performance by teaching you how to overcome the habits that may be holding you back from thriving. Here’s how to get started: 1. Map out your habit loops The first step to breaking a habit (no matter what it is) is to figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage? Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviours you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets/chocolate during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values. 2. See what you actually get out of those actions The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome. Pay attention to how you feel when you partake in your habit. If you stress eat, how does it feel to eat junk food when you aren’t hungry? How does what you eat impact the state of your mind, and body, fifteen minutes after the fact? If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realise that it isn’t helping you get your work done? Remember your answers to these questions, or write them down to help solidify them in your mind. This new awareness you have developed will help your brain accurately update the reward value of the habit you want to break. You will begin to see that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential. 3. Replace the reward with curiosity The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behaviour. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer. Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like stress eating at work, and willpower hasn’t quite worked out for you. What if, instead of indulging in your chocolate craving to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted it with curiosity about why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind? The reward value of curiosity (opening yourself up) is tangibly different than stress eating (closing yourself down) in this instance. Ultimately, curiosity feels better in the moment and is much more enjoyable than the rumination that often occurs after giving into a bad habit. People often learn, pretty quickly, that cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, and that these come and go. Being curious will help you acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, you can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in your body and mind from moment to moment — until those moments pass.

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