How to use routines to create and stick to new habits

WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT HABITS, DO YOU ALSO THINK OF A CONSCIOUS DECISION, LIKE “STARTING NEXT WEEK, I WILL EXERCISE MORE”? IT IS TRUE THAT YOU NEED TO MAKE A DECISION AND HAVE A LOT OF MOTIVATION IN ORDER TO CREATE A NEW HABIT. However, habits are often not simply the result of a conscious decision, but rather unconscious patterns in the brain. The good news is you can use routines to learn and unlearn these patterns.

What is a habit?

A habit is formed when our brain cells notice that we do something over and over again.  It does this because our brain is generally trying to save energy to allow us to concentrate on the important things. Cleaning our teeth, walking to our bus stop in the morning or watering our plants does not require a great deal of thought. This is because these are everyday routines that have formed habits.

So, habits help us to save energy. But they can also have a negative impact on our wellbeing, our health and our happiness. Fortunately we can use routines to unlearn negative habits and learn positive ones.

Effects of a positive routine

Our brains do not differentiate between good and bad routines. They both work the same way.

Of course, they have very different effects on our mental health, but also on how easily we go through life, deal with our work, exercise, etc. This is heavily influenced by our small daily actions, which is why it is important to establish routines that facilitate our wellbeing and happiness.

Always consider whether a habit is sapping your strength or saving you time and energy. By establishing good routines, you automatically feel less stressed and unhappy.

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How to unlearn negative habits

Identify your triggers

In order to unlearn negative habits, you first have to identify the ‘cues’ that trigger those habits. There are three factors to consider here: cues, routines and rewards.

Let’s take an example. You are an occasional smoker and always smoke in social situations, like when meeting friends who also smoke. Let’s assume that you want to get rid of this habit in order to live more healthily.

The cue in this example is the people that smoke around you. The routine is that you then start smoking too. The reward may be that you relax and that you have something to “hold onto” in the social situation.

Change your environment

The best thing to do is completely eliminate the cue. You can do this, for example, by changing your environment. Whilst you are trying to unlearn your social smoking habit, you could stay at home more often, or you could exercise more instead of going to social events. Alternatively, you could, for example, instead go out with people who do not smoke on the balcony or who do not leave the club for a cigarette.

Replace your routine

Our brains do not handle the loss of a habit well. Finding a replacement for a habit is much more effective than simply unlearning it. We can simply replace the middle part of the “cue, routine, reward” pattern, i.e. the routine. Let’s look again at the social smoking example. If you find yourself in another situation where you are craving a cigarette, you could instead put a toothpick between your teeth and chew on it.

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How can we establish new routines to create habits?

Formulate goals as positive statements

We are more likely to take on new habits if we formulate them positively rather than negatively. For example, instead of saying “From now on, I will not smoke any more cigarettes”, we could say “From now on, I will use a toothpick instead of a cigarette”. Or instead of “From now on, I will not eat any more sweets”, we could say “From now on, I will eat more healthily”.

How long does it take to develop a new routine?

Our brains learn through repetition. That’s why it is important to make new routines as regular a part of our everyday lives as possible. Breaking a routine up into many small steps helps to train your brain as often as possible. The goal is to transform your conscious decision into a routine, and ultimately a new habit – just like breathing or cleaning your teeth.

It is not the end of the world if you happen to slip up on your new routine for a single day. Just make sure that the next day, you get back to doing it. Taking too long a break from it raises the risk of quickly giving up the new habit.

Once you have firmly established a new routine as part of your everyday life, you will stick to it. There is a myth that it takes 21 days to establish a routine. In fact, it is more like 60 days. However, the length of time it takes to establish a new routine varies from person to person.

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Cognitive behavioural therapy for stubborn habits

If you want to give up a negative habit, but cannot do so alone, a psychologist can help. We often use cognitive behavioural therapy as a basis for psychological counselling. Cognitive behavioural therapy is based on a theory about how we learn. The premise of this therapy process is that a behaviour can be acquired, retained and unlearned following certain patterns.

Working with your coach on mynd, you can use the methods of cognitive behavioural therapy to examine problematic patterns of behaviour. You can then deploy targeted measures in order to bring about positive changes.

written by Daniel Sigrist

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