We all find ourselves in a rut from time to time, especially when it comes to diet and health. Health should be viewed as a journey and not a once off achievement, we are always working on our health and it can take us in many directions! Being aware of this and knowing which habits are no longer supporting us is an important first step. Breaking habits and developing new habits can be a lengthy process yet very rewarding. To help you on your way towards achieving your health goals here I am discussing the science behind habits and how to break them!
The Science of Habits
New research (O’Hare et al) suggests a habit can leave lasting effects on specific circuits in the brain, causing us to give in to our cravings. This finding has allowed Scientists to better understand how habits manifest and develop new strategies to break them. Specifically, in the basal ganglia, there are two main types of paths carrying opposing messages. One path carries a ‘go’ signal, which triggers an action, the other path carries a ‘stop’ signal, halting an action. Research in mice shows the go pathway in mice with a sugar habit, turns on before the stop pathway, the opposite occurs in mice with no sugar habit. This sort of research provides some understanding around how habits are formed, the one thing to remember is that habits are deep-rooted and often are developed to serve a purpose, so will take some commitment to change.
How to truly change a habit
Having more than intent to break a habit is necessary to permanently change a habit. Its like the saying goes “practice makes perfect’ – to change there needs to be a plan in place which is practiced daily. Here are some techniques, which can form part of that plan to put in place to truly see change:
Working out the Why
To set an intention to change something we need to know why we want to change it and why we want something else. Before embarking on breaking a habit, sit with yourself and jot down the reasons why and refer to it when motivation is lacking, this will help reignite your drive.
Change your Environment
You must be in an environment to allow yourself to stop old habits; otherwise you will default and continue business as usual! Here are some tips to change the environment without having to overhaul your life:
Habit: eating large portions of unhealthy snack foods straight from the packet
Change: avoid buying unhealthy snack foods or portion into individual serving sizes and store in a place where you wont automatically reach for them.
Habit: Checking emails on phone too often
Change: store phone on the table away from your desk, at night keep phone out of bedroom to avoid temptation or have set times when emails can be checked eg 8am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm.
Habit: Buying the same groceries week in week out yet wanting to change diet
Change: visit the farmers market instead of supermarket and take a list of the foods you truly want to purchase to support your health goals or order food online if the temptation is too much.
Habit: eating dinner in-front of the tv with distraction which leads to overeating
Change: set the table and eat at the table with the tv off, have a picnic on the floor and make it into an experience.
Develop reminders to trigger the habit
Think about having reminders to trigger the new habit. This means, each time a reminder occurs you will be triggered to engage in the new habit.
New Habit: drink more water
Reminder: every hour on the clock, fill your glass
New Habit: exercise more
Reminder: put running shoes by the front door, when you see them it will act as a cue to go for a walk/run
New Habit: Follow meal plan
Reminder: stick it on the fridge and each time you open the fridge for food it will cause you to consult the meal plan first!
Practice, Practice, Practice
It goes without saying, forming a new habit takes time and if old habits are deeply ingrained it will take longer. Doing something once, will not create change. Make a goal to practice the habit a few times per day if not daily and keep a habit diary if need be!
Seeking support from loved ones or others who share common goals can act as motivation and help you stay on track. This can be as simple as sharing your new habit with a family member, making a pact with a friend to both create a new habit or joining an online group or program and sharing your habit with your community. Pick whichever way works best for you and will keep you motivated!
There are so many different ways to master the formation of new habits. However, the one constant is that it takes more than intention. Intention is the first step, having a plan in place to carry out your intention; day in day out until the new habit becomes second nature, will create permanent change.
T. Neal, W. Wood, M. Wu, D. Kurlander. The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011; 37 (11): 1428 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211419863
Justin K. O’Hare, Kristen K. Ade, Tatyana Sukharnikova, Stephen D. Van Hooser, Mark L. Palmeri, Henry H. Yin, Nicole Calakos. Pathway-Specific Striatal Substrates for Habitual Behavior. Neuron, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.12.032