How to Break and Make Habits
As we ease out of lockdown and back into real life many of us are finding that our pre-covid habits - think exercise routines and walks to work - have been replaced by lockdown habits. Think Netflix and wine!
Sometimes, even when the will is there, getting back on track with the things you know make you feel good, and that you want in your life, can be tough.
We caught up with Rachel Weiss - founding partner of Rowan Consultancy and a counsellor, coach, mediator and trainer with over 25 years experience - and asked her "how can we can make helpful habits and break the ones that no longer serve us?"
The result is this great blog that we know will help many of you who've been struggling with this lockdown habit hangover!
If you feel motivated to make new routines after reading it, why not download our 6 weeks Back To Fitness programme? A gradual step-up routine to help you rediscover your exercise habit. Bring on an abundance of happy rewards!
How to Break and Make Habits - Rachel Weiss
We are creatures of habit. Habits save us time, they are shortcuts for our brains, we can do them on auto-pilot eg driving to a familiar route. But if there roadworks this task suddenly require more brainpower.
We all have dozens of habits, some are helpful, others less so. eg 5 minutes of stretching when I get up, brushing my teeth before I go to bed, doomscrolling before going to bed, snacking on crisps in the evening, phoning my Mum at the weekend….. Stop a moment to list some of your habits, try not to judge them.
Changing habits takes a lot of persistence and effort, because our brains are wired to stick to our old habits. So don’t despair, hang on in there and use these tips to break some unhelpful habits or to create some new ones.
Breaking unhelpful habits
First identify an unhelpful habit. Now break it down into three parts. In “The Power of Habits” Charles Duhigs says that every habit has 3 parts.
- The Cue or trigger eg time of day, location, emotional state, other people, an event
- The Routine eg eat chocolate, smoke, go for a walk, brush your teeth, phone your mum
- The Reward eg physical sensations or emotional state
You may need to play detective for a week or so to identify what the 3 parts of your habit are. Observe yourself non-judgementally, if possible. Be curious, what is the trigger for your habit, and what is the reward?
Jane often snacks in the evening, although she isn’t hungry, she just craves crips, chocolate or biscuits. She figures out that the Cue is a combination of the time of day (evening) and an emotional state (bored or lonely). The Routine is eating snacks and the Reward is a temporary feeling of comfort.
To change the habit, use the same Cue, provide a similar Reward, but change the Routine. So now when Jane notices that she’s bored or lonely in the evening, she considers phoning a friend or cuddling her dog or comfort reading or watching a favourite film, since these give her a similar reward. Experiment to see which Reward works best for you, or have a list of your top 3 ready. It can help to talk this through with a friend or a coach or a counsellor first, so that you are prepared and to help you persist. Talking with a counsellor can help you explore which emotional needs you are trying to meet with your unhelpful habits and to find other, healthier, ways to meet these.
Put some barriers between you and your old Routines, and make the new Routine easy to access. To change the habit of scrolling on your phone in bed: put a book by your bed or some other pastime or relaxation, and leave the phone outside the bedroom. Jane used to sit in the kitchen in the evenings, now she sits in another room where her books and TV are, so that there are 2 doors between her and the snacks.
Creating new habits
The habit of exercising regularly often leads to us sleeping better1 and making healthier eating choices 2. So it’s a key habit to foster. First identify a Cue or trigger and then your Reward.
During lockdown, I missed my usual cycle commute to Rowan Consultancy in Kinnoull Street, Perth. I noticed that my body felt sluggish and I was putting on weight. So I decided to create a new habit of going for a lunchtime walk. After some experimenting, I chose a Time cue: at 1pm I would go for a walk. My Reward would be feeling better afterwards, and possibly also enjoying the walk and switching my brain off from work and onto my surroundings.
Take time to choose your Cue and to think about your Reward. It’s best to choose some exercise that you enjoy, so that it’s a Reward in itself, but if that’s not possible the Reward could be feeling pleased with yourself afterwards or picturing living a longer, healthier life, or putting a tick in your calendar and aiming for a streak of consecutive ticks or checking in with a friend to say how many walks you did this week.
My Cue was the clock, but I also left my shoes, gloves and coat by the front door to remove barriers to my new Routine. I tend to get absorbed in my work, so I had to set an alarm away from my desk, which forced me to get up. Hunger helped too, by one o’clock I was ready for a break! I didn’t stop to think “Do I feel like going for a walk”, don’t wait to feel like it, just go! The trick was to form the habit of going straight to the front door to go out come rain or shine or snow - quite a challenge recently!
If your new habit is going to the gym, leave your gym clothes out, or wear them in the morning, to remove another barrier or have your gym bag packed and ready by the door.
Find your Tribe
We are social creatures and most of us work better with others, so find your Tribe for your new habit. This could be an online group like the Silver Sister Facebook group for women who want to stopping dyeing their hair and go grey naturally or a local walking group or a friend who will cheer you on.
It’s harder to duck out of going swimming if your friend picks you up or agrees to meet you there or if you’ve signed up for a regular class. But make sure you choose an accepting group, who will believe in you and not judge you.
Be kind to yourself
You won’t do your new habit everytime, but that’s OK. Celebrate every time that you do it, put a tick on the calendar, praise yourself. Aim to increase the number of consecutive days or weeks when you do your new habit.
We know that animals and children respond better to positive re-enforcement of the desired behaviour rather than a telling-off for the wrong behaviour, so treat yourself the way you would a puppy who you are training or a child who you are teaching to ride a bicycle: praise yourself when you do your new habit; tell yourself that tomorrow’s another day, when you slip back into old habits, as we all do, that’s just how our brains are wired, it’s not a moral failing.
So…identify your Routine, your Cue, and your Reward. Remind yourself why you want this new Routine, how does it link to your life goals? Set yourself a realistic target. Celebrate success. With persistence and training we can re-programme our brain to learn new habits, which eventually become automatic.
Partner at Rowan Consultancy, 4 Kinnoull Street, Perth PH1 5EN
- Sleep Foundation “Exercise and Sleep” Jan 2021 https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-activity/exercise-and-sleep
- Beaulieu K, Hopkins M, Gibbons C, Oustric P, Caudwell P, Blundell J, Finlayson G. Exercise Training Reduces Reward for High-Fat Food in Adults with Overweight/Obesity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Apr;52(4):900-908. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002205. PMID: 31764466. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31764466/