A pair of feet in running shoes, walk across grass.

Habits: making, breaking and changing for the better

There’s so much that we do without thinking. Switching lights on, brushing our teeth, driving our cars… even the way we sit at our desks or check our email. They’re all patterns that we have repeated over and over that give us the reliable outcome we expect. In short, they are habits.

We’re accustomed to thinking of habits as mostly negative, associating them with things like smoking or overuse of social media. But actually, the concept of a ‘habit’ itself is fairly neutral and they are actually pretty useful and efficient way of using our brain power. Imagine if every single small thing you did took absolutely all of your mental effort and concentration? Just making a cup of coffee would be exhausting (and forget checking your Instagram at the same time!). 

But what if we suddenly need to make a significant change to our habits? For example, we all know how hard it was to adjust to Covid restrictions. Or the overnight transition to homeworking and home-schooling. It was tough, but over time we adjusted to it and the things we found alien (like wearing masks and talking to everyone over video call) became a lot more comfortable, if not exactly second nature. There’s a really good scientific reason why – the changes had a built-in benefit: our continued safety and that of others. In his famous book, ‘The Power of Habit’, American journalist Charles Duhigg asserts that habits are formed simply because they ultimately offer some kind of reward – be it good or bad. It makes sense. A smoker will have a cigarette because it gives them the nicotine they crave. And we have all seen the news stories on how our brains respond when we receive likes or comments on our social media. So, conversely, he believes that, in most circumstances, to change or stop a habit, it’s simply a case of identifying and understanding it – working out what triggers it and how it rewards you. “We know from study after study that simply learning how your own habits work gives you the ability to change them,” said Charles, speaking to NPR.

Setting an ‘if/then’ plan can help to break an existing thought pattern by interrupting it with a new one.

If you want to get all neurological about it, breaking a habit means effectively changing the structure of your brain in regard to a specific behaviour. But it’s that kind of talk that often makes people run for the hills. Instead, consider this: habits form through repetition, so it stands to reason that breaking them takes the same approach. So, what Duhigg means by ‘learning how your own habits work’ essentially means thinking about the habit you want to change and working out what reward you currently get from it. For example: 

"I always intend to get up at 7:00am, so that I can go for a run, but my bed is so cosy that I usually just hit snooze.” 

The bed feels good. The extra half hour feels good. But later you feel bad because you have a late afternoon energy slump and grab a sugary snack and a macchiato which picks you up, but also means you don’t sleep quite so well later. So actually, you have a cycle of problematic habits here that could really change your day for the better if you modified them. You’re sleeping in because you’re tired. The late sugar and coffee give you energy – these are your ‘rewards’, but they’re probably making it harder to get a good night’s sleep. So, how do we replace these ‘negative’ rewards with a better one? Telling yourself that going for a run at 7am is good for you clearly isn’t enough. Let’s take a look at some of the other potential rewards: an early run increases your energy levels throughout the day, so you don’t get the afternoon slump. So, you don’t need the coffee and sugar, which is costing you over €5 a day! And you get a better night’s sleep. What we’ve got here is the basis of an ‘if/then’ plan. It’s a great way to change your thinking towards specific situations, breaking the existing thought pattern by repeatedly interrupting it with a new one. 

"If I get up for a run now, then I’m going to save myself €5 today and tomorrow.”

A young woman lies on her front on her bed, writing in a notebook with a yellow pen.
Writing down your intentions is a great way of habituating to your new ‘habit’. Studies also show that daily journaling can help to relieve stress and improve wellbeing.

It takes repetition, but by reframing the event with a new ‘then’ action, you are actively supporting a new way of thinking – and creating a new, better habit. You can also support this new way of thinking with positive actions. For example, putting your running gear in your view when you wake up removes another barrier. And there is also evidence to suggest that with writing down your new intention reinforces and embeds the new habit. So, grab a notebook and pen.

Finally, stress, as we know, makes everything harder. So, it’s really important to look for effective ways to manage your stress levels when you’re looking to make life changes. Thankfully, there are plenty of simple techniques that you can pull upon, which can really help to relieve stress and improve wellbeing. The daily practice of mindfulness is incredibly effective, as is journaling. But simply going for a walk, enjoying a hobby or talking to a friend can give us a really positive lift in our daily lives.

Written by Anna Shaw