Lately, when chatting with friends and clients I’ve noticed a couple of phrases come up time and time again. “I don’t know why I do keep eating chips when I’m already full", from one friend trying to improve her diet. "I must get back in the habit of going for a walk after the school run, it used to make me feel so much better", from a member of the box who was feeling wrung out and frazzled. This got me thinking about how our behaviours are formed and how they can lead to frustration and procrastination. Why do we resist the very things that can make our lives better? It doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it’s something that so many of us - myself included! - struggle with.
Through research I’ve learned that our lives are basically made up of a series of habits that we have created for ourselves as we have grown up. These habits are formed in a 3 step process made up a of a trigger, action or response and reward.
Here’s an example….
1. You start to feel tired (trigger)
2. You drink a cup of coffee (action)
3. You feel more alert and awake (reward)
Our day to day lives contain hundreds of little habits - small things like brushing our teeth, switching off a light, going to bed - that we perform without thinking. These are learned actions that we’ve acquired as we have developed, and they form part of our personality, our outlook on others as well our view of ourselves. If you pay close attention to your day to day activities you’ll probably find that they don’t differ that much from one day to the next.
Here’s the science bit…
Neuroscientists now understand that habit-forming happens in a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. This area also plays a role in pattern recognition, memories and development of emotions. Decision making is taken care of by a different part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex. However - as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex stops its work. Sits back, takes a breather. And that’s where the problem can arise - because these two parts of the brain can end up fight for control. Decision making verses ingrained habits. Conscious choices versus unconscious response. Now, this can be positive - driving a car, for instance, relies on a number of habitual, learned movements all working together. But it doesn’t always work in our favour - repeating bad habits, things that don’t make us feel good but that we fall back on when we are stressed, or tired, or overloaded, leads to feeling frustrated, stuck in a rut and unable to move forwards.
So, now we understand what’s been holding us back - how can we change? How do we improve our health, diet or working lives by forming new positive, healthy habits?
Here are 3 simple steps to help you do just that:
Start Small. Have you ever wondered why New Year’s resolutions don’t work? It’s usually because they involve such big changes of habit that they’re simply not sustainable. Starting small is much more likely to result in success, that you can then build on.
Attach a new habit to a current habit. For instance, say your goal is to drink more water. Don’t try and drink 3 litres a day to begin with (remember - Start Small) - instead, every time you have a cup of coffee or tea, have a glass of water as well. Your water intake will go up, it’ll become a habit, and soon it’ll be automatic. If your goal is to move more and you commute to work, pledge to get off the bus a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way, making it part of your existing journey. You might find that you end up deciding to walk the whole way in before long. Small habit changes can turn in to bigger, more significant ones.
Decide on your goal and plan how you are going to make it happen. So if your goal is to get in shape or lose weight - plan it out. Be specific - how much weight would you like to lose? Write down the steps it will take you to get there and have markers on a calendar. So don’t just say ‘I want to lose some weight’, say, for example, “By the end of the first week I will have lost 2 pounds”. As habits are formed through the cycle of trigger, action and reward be sure to reward yourself at the end of each marker. If weight loss is your aim, maybe a nice massage or spa treatment is your reward.
I hope that’s given you some ideas of how to make a few small changes that could have a big impact on your life, health and happiness. If you want to read about habit forming in more depth, I recommend ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg, and remember that if you want to get personal advice on how you can change your health and fitness for the better, I’m always happy to answer questions, or you can book a session with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.