Breaking Bad Habits
At the start of each new year, we habitually declare resolutions that we habitually know we’ll break. But have you ever wondered why resolutions are so darn hard to keep? The answer comes down to one word — habits.
Habits are a normal part of life and arise out of repetition. We naturally like routines in our life and adapt to them readily because when behaviors become automatic, our brain does not have to work so hard and therefore frees itself up to focus on other things.
But being creatures of habit make it difficult to give up behaviors that are bad for us, because our brains have gotten so used to the routine of those particular behaviors. But it can be done!
Like training puppies and disciplining children, positive reinforcement along with lots of patience and persistence works best. Habits can develop when good or enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. This is one reason why it’s so easy to cultivate potentially harmful routines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media — and also why they’re so difficult to break.
Another thing that makes habits especially hard to break is that replacing a first-learned habit with a new one doesn’t erase the original behavior. Rather, both remain in your brain. But you can take steps to strengthen the new one and suppress the original one. Researchers insist that self-control is like a muscle that needs to be developed and strengthened over time.
One approach is to focus on becoming more aware of your unhealthy habits. Then develop strategies to counteract them. For example, habits can be linked in our minds to certain places and activities. You could develop a plan, say, to avoid walking down the hall where there’s a candy machine. Resolve to avoid going places where you’ve usually smoked. Stay away from friends and situations linked to problem drinking or drug use.
Another helpful technique is to visualize yourself in a tempting situation and mentally practice the good behavior so your brain can become used to the new routine.
Probably the most helpful way to kick bad habits is to actively replace unhealthy routines with new, healthy ones. Some people find they can replace a bad habit, even drug addiction, with another behavior, like exercising.
Whatever habit(s) you’re trying to change, we wish you a happy and healthy journey in 2014, and please let us at Extension know if we can provide more information to help you along the way.