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Is it possible to drop bad habits?

You can start by incorporating small changes in your routine.

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We all have habits that we just cannot shake loose. No matter how much we try, our efforts to stop certain behaviours inadvertently send us down the rabbit hole. Anyone who has or is trying to give up something that is not serving them, like social media or video games, knows how challenging it is to drop a habit.

Why is it so difficult to change our habits?

Various studies on the human brain tell us that once we establish the brain circuitry associated with a specific habit, it never goes away. When we repeatedly perform a behaviour, we lay down a neural pathway. As we keep performing the behaviour, and it becomes almost automatic, the neural pathway becomes thicker and makes the habit, whether helpful or not, easier to perform. Which is why we often try to inculcate good habits in our children from the beginning. However, just like for us, it is difficult for them to drop habits once they are established.

Almost all humans are in a state of progress; constantly laying down new pathways and making older ones stronger. But just as it is possible to develop new habits, it is possible to break them as well.

What can we do to drop habits?

CharlesDuhigg, author of the book, ‘The Power of Habit’, states that at the core of our behaviours lie a habit loop, which consists of 3 steps:

  • Step 1 is the ‘cue’, which triggers our habits. It can be a specific time, like 1 PM, or even something like waking up.
  • Step 2 is the ‘routine’, which is initiated after the cue. It could be brushing our teeth after getting up or having lunch at 1 PM.
  • Step 3 is the ‘reward’, which is what we feel after completing the routine. It could be the minty sensation after brushing or a satisfied tummy after lunch. It gives us the satisfaction that makes the habit easy to repeat.

These three components are the cores of any habit loop, and when we swap in replacements, it creates a change that makes it easier to drop certain habits. For example, I wanted to drop procrastination as a habit to spend more time creating. Usually, after my morning routine, I would have a cup of coffee and sit down in front on my computer to work, but I would inadvertently end up playing scrabble. The coffee was my cue and it took me to my routine behaviour, which was playing scrabble on my phone. The reward was the rush of dopamine I would experience after winning a game.

I intended to stop procrastinating, so the trick was to change my routine. The coffee cue had me sitting at my computer to only write for a minute, after which I could play one round of scrabble and then write for another minute. So, I increased my writing time to 2 and then 3 minutes and now I do an hour of writing followed by a round of scrabble. This is how I steadily changed my routine.

By adjusting our routines accordingly, we can help change our habits, and help our children so the same. However, to enable good habits, we need to do more than just forcefully drop our bad habits. If we forcefully stop a behaviour, the pathway for it will not go away, it will lay dormant. As a consequence, the next time we are in an environment with the same cue, the pathway will be reactivated. Therefore, we need to replace old pathways with an alternative route.

In his book, Charles describes how Alcoholics Anonymous replaces the old pathway. They ask you in times of stress, which is one of the possible cues, to change your routine. Instead of going to a bar and a bottle, go to a meeting and a community; your release of tension is the reward in either case. AA encourages alcoholics to develop alternative habits by shifting the routine. They know that the reward that alcoholics seek is not getting drunk, but alleviating stress or social interaction.

In the same way, we need to change our routine while still maintaining the reward to change or replace a habit. That could mean meditating instead of smoking, or for children, reading a book instead of spending another hour in front of the TV. As long as our base desire for stress-relief or entertainment is fulfilled, we can choose the best routine to fulfil those desires. Therefore, the best way to drop an old habit is to replace it with a new one.

Originally Published on Medium

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