Do You Understand Your Habits?

Do you understand your habits?  Do you want to change your habits?

Are you aware that habits, both good habits and bad habits, control most aspects of your life including how you spend your time, how you relate to others,  and how you experience pleasure or pain?

In the past months I’ve noticed that many experts have opinions about habits. It’s a popular topic for talk show hosts, life coaches, advice columnists and bloggers.

Advice about how to develop habits that will improve health, wealth and happiness abounds. There are training programs, online courses, and books for people who want to develop good habits and kick bad habits .

At the beginning of this New Year many people made resolutions about habits they want to give up. Eliminating bad habits like swearing, nail biting, procrastinating, eating junk food, or wasting time top the list of things people want to stop doing.

Addictions to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, food, online gaming, gambling, shopping and, yes, even sex, are among  bad habits that people want to conquer.  Most addictions need professional help although the group support that comes from established organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous is often successful.

Self improvement habits such as getting physically active, keeping a journal,  eating healthy foods, saving money, practicing kindness  often top the list of new habits that people seek to develop.

Psychologists and other habit gurus offer advice about how to change habits. Some of the tips they offer include:

1. It’s important to understand the cues and triggers underlying the habit.

For example, know who you are with when the habit occurs.  When I was a smoker, I automatically reached for a cigarette when taking a break with certain co-workers, or when playing a tough bridge hand.  This habit was so strong that, even 35 years after quitting,  I often find myself thinking of a cigarette when I talk to these people on the telephone or when I exchange emails with them.

Other cues and triggers include the time of day when a habit is performed or the setting where it happens.  Many mothers automatically find themselves eating foods that toddlers have left on their plates.  Some people automatically reach for a book to read a few pages before going to sleep.

2. Every habit has its rewards.  Knowing the rewards of a habit helps to change behaviour patterns.

I am determined to develop new habits for time management during 2015 including allowing an extra 30 minutes of time for every appointment I make.  The anticipated reward will be that there is some slack for unanticipated delays in traffic or last minute holdups that might cause a late arrival.  The big reward will be that I honour my time-conscious nature and I’m not stressed about lateness.

Rewards of developing new habits may also include better overall health because of regular exercise, better sleep patterns, and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

3. All habits have emotional roots.  To  understand the emotional roots of habits we need a certain amount of self-awareness.  Addictions often have deep emotional roots which is why professional help is needed when working on addictions.  Other habits can be changed with conscious appreciation of how these habits were formed and what basic needs they satisfy.

Anxiety and stress may cause over-eating. Worry about failure may hinder someone from trying new activities or hobbies.  Some habits, such as nail biting or over-eating provide comfort.  A person addicted to shopping may find relief from isolation by going into a store and making a purchase.

Sometimes habits — even bad habits — make you happy and provide genuine satisfaction. The habit gets performed without conscious awareness of what precipitated the behaviour and without awareness of the many psychological rewards.

Never Too Late to Change Habits

All of us want good habits that lead to happiness. As an optimist, I believe that it’s never too late to change a habit.   The process for changing a habit takes determination and focus. The experts suggest the following techniques:

1.  Choose what you want to change  

If the habit relates to a major life change like attaining physical fitness, beginning with a commitment to take a daily walk may be the starting point. Likewise, if losing weight is the goal,  eliminating junk food from the grocery cart may be the beginning of better diet. Small incremental improvements are easier to achieve.

2.  Make it specific

Making a commitment to a daily walk might include some measure of time or distance.  For example, you may want to develop a habit of walking for 30 minutes for a certain number of city blocks.

3.  Make a public commitment

When working on a new habit,  involving others gives support.  Groups such as AA assign a sponsor who is there to give support when needed.

By writing about my commitment to limit daily activities and allow extra time for appointment, I know that my friends and family who read this blog will be watching me and encouraging me.

4.  Set short term goals

Some social psychologists advise that it takes 30 days to make a habit begin to stick.  Others advise 100 repetitions as a rule.

I’m going to set a 3 month target (90 days) to develop the habit of allowing an extra half hour around scheduled appointments.  It’s more than usual 30 days but with 90 repetitions I’ll have sufficient time to test drive this change.

5. One Change at a time

Often we try to make several changes at once in our efforts at self-improvement.  Major life changes like weight loss or improved physical fitness or better time management involve breaking patterns. These behaviour patterns have  developed over long periods of time with strong emotional roots.

Focusing on one habit at a time is recommended to allow you to gain confidence in your ability to change. To go back to the example of daily walking,  after 30 days of consistent practise, this habit can be augmented with strength training or with other physical activity that will lead to greater fitness levels.

6.  Reward yourself

Once the behaviour becomes automatic, new cues and triggers that become self-rewarding will develop.  Some habits, such as attaining better fitness give automatic rewards such a tightening the belt by a few notches or having clothes fit better.

Sometimes a more concrete reward is desirable. Many smokers who quit use the money they save from buying cigarettes to purchase a vacation or a piece of jewellery.

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle

Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions are often abandoned because people have insufficient awareness about the factors underlying a habit. In this post, I’ve summarized some of the best tips for understanding habits and for changing habits.

I’m using this advice to make changes in my life.   Hopefully, you will be inspired to change some of your habits as well.


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