Saturday, February 4, 2012

Breaking a Bad Habit - A Trick to Make the Process Easier

Have you ever tried to break a really bad habit - and failed? You can't succeed without motivation and commitment; but even with these in place, the process is always hard. There are more failures than successes.

But I've got good news for you. There's a way to make the process easier. But before I explain it to you, let's review what we're talking about here...

Routines, habits, skills, and behavior patterns. To your brain, all these are the same thing - ways of doing something that are so well ingrained that you do them automatically without having to think about them.

Routines, habits, skills, and behavior patterns get established in your brain through consistent repetition of an action over time. Each time you perform the behaviors, the brain cells involved in the action try to grow dendrites that will connect the brain cells involved into a circuit. As brain scientists like to say, "Brain cells that fire together wire together." Yes, but only after many repetitions. As all the connections are being made, the brain cells are insulating themselves with myelin. So the thought processes involved are not only automatic, they're fast.

And oh yeah. They're permanent. So "wiring" isn't a figure of speech. The connections are physical. There's no delete key. There's no quick and easy way to make them go away.

And one more thing. The behavior patterns that get wired could be good habits or bad habits. The brain doesn't know the difference. All your brain knows is that you're repeating a behavior, which stimulates the brain cells to begin wiring together to make it easier for you to repeat the behavior.

Why am I telling you this?

Because so many people would like to "break" a bad habit or learn to do something better. The problem is, you don't really break a habit or make it go away. As I said, there's no delete key.

What you do is ingrain a new pattern or habit that's so much more fulfilling that you stop using the old one. So you end up with two habits wired in your brain. The old, "bad" habit and the new, improved habit. After many years of not being used, the brain cell connections of the old habit will wither away and be absorbed by the body.

The bottom line - breaking a habit is hard work. While constructing a new neural pathway, you have to ignore what the old neural pathway makes it so easy to do. Initially, there are more successes than failures. Also, the rewiring process takes time - a minimum of weeks or months of consistent repetition, depending on how complex the new pattern is.

You might view everything I've said so far as "bad news." You want this to be easy, and it's not. You want your good intentions to be rewarded with quick success, and that ain't gonna happen.

But I do have some good news about breaking habits. Some really good news.

It's this: the more habits you break, the easier it gets to break the next habit. You see, breaking a habit is a process, which can become habit itself. Put another way, you can establish the brain wiring for breaking habits. This means that if you do the work to break enough habits, breaking a habit eventually could become relatively easy for you.

So here's a trick for you. Create the wiring for breaking habits by breaking a bunch of easy habits. Save that big bad habit until much later, after you have several successes under your belt.

An example of a relatively easy positive change of habit - If you usually write with a pen, start writing with a pencil, or the other way around. If you start your day by checking email, check it the night before.

After a few successes, you can move on to changing things that are slightly harder, such as - Get up an hour earlier each morning to go walking or jogging before your morning shower. If you go to bed an hour earlier, getting up an hour earlier won't be so hard. Or replace sugar-based desserts with fruit. Or start flossing your teeth twice a day.

Any change will seem difficult initially, but compared to stopping abuse of sex, alcohol or nicotine, these are easy changes. And if you persist, the rewiring will happen rather quickly.

Successfully change enough "easy" patterns, and eventually you'll have the habit-breaking habits you need to tackle something big.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love it. This article lines up wonderfully with a push I am involved in getting a group of friends to give up sugar. I have a wordpress blog where I am journalling the experience and encouraging with links to great sources like your article here. Please drop by and comment on our struggles and successes.