Breaking Bad Habits

I heard this old song on the radio last week, and it got me to thinking about bad habits and what I have done to overcome some of mine as I began my journey down the weight loss path, and how they might help you on your trip.

Bad habits are something we all have in common, some are physical addictions such as smoking, drugs or sugar, but did you know most habits are mental patterns and can be broken?

They are a pattern of behaviour we fall into when we are stressed, sleep deprived, hungry, scared, or nervous.  Sometimes habits are just things we do to calm ourselves and our overactive brains.

Our brains are an incredible organ, and as most of us are aware, they control everything we do and everything that we are.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy and computing power for our brain to do this, so our brains – which are quite small and weigh a lot less in comparison with our other organs – will do anything to save energy.

Habits are a way our brain solves this problem. When we do something over and over again, it becomes automatic, so our brain no longer has to concentrate heavily or think about it and will let the behaviour run on auto pilot so to speak. Remember when driving a car took your full concentration and you thought you’d never be able to put it all together? I’ll wager if you’re a regular driver that now you can monitor traffic, drive the car, navigate to your destination and fiddle with a mobile phone (but shouldn’t ;))at the same time because your brain knows what to do and where to take you.  This creation of skills and habits is the way you have more energy for your brain to concentrate on more important things like our ancestors used the extra computation to work out escape routes from predators or finding and killing their next meal… and invent the wheel.

Once we get into these automatic patterns, it is quite difficult to see what we are doing, as our subconscious mind takes over.  To use driving as an example, do you realise that in most surveys something like 70% of people believes they’re in the top 5% of drivers… primarily because they’ve defined and automated their driving habits so well. The irony is the other 95% of drivers curse at them and call them an oblivious idiot because they fail to indicate when they change lanes because they’ve developed a bad habit!

Mindlessly eating that packet of chips in front of the television becomes routine and we don’t consider the ramifications because it is a habit just to sit and eat to get the dopamine rush.  Simple things like biting our nails, lighting up a cigarette when the nicotine level in our blood drops low, reaching for a sugary snack when our energy level dips, or for me – pouring a glass of wine as soon as I got home from work.

It is possible to overcome these bad habits, but only when we bring them to our conscious thought.  We must bring them into the front of our brains and reprogram our behaviour.  We need to be clear, the brain will always form habits, as we pointed out, it’s a survival instinct, so what is needed is replace our bad habits with good ones we can also forget about!  Initially, this is very hard, as it takes more energy than our brain wants to spend, but it must be done if we’re to achieve any worthwhile goal.

This reprogramming is done in many ways, one of the simplest (not necessarily easiest) methods is to recognise the habit and say ‘no’ to yourself when you find you are doing it, and substitute an alternative behaviour.  We are all creatures of comfort, and denying ourselves something we are used to is a difficult thing to do.  Sometimes what you’re doing will take pain or hard work, and quite frankly you need to learn the habit of just pushing through the pain barrier.  It takes quite a bit of mental focus and perseverance to overcome those bad habits and replace them with healthy behaviours, but eventually the new way of doing things will become the norm, and the pain will disappear and turn into the pleasure of a familiar habit…

Some ideas that worked for me regarding breaking habits are:

  1. Not buying ‘bad’ food – if it is not in the house it takes me a lot more effort to get it…and being lazy means it’s too much effort to eat badly!
  2. Taking the time to make sure I had healthy snacks around the house.
  3. Drinking water whenever I thought I was hungry, a lot of the time I wasn’t genuinely hungry but was actually dehydrated so water helps solve the problem quite often.
  4. For a while, I wore a rubber band around my wrist and ‘pinged’ it against myself whenever I caught myself biting my nails. This is a form of negative reinforcement that can help keep you conscious of your behaviour.
  5. Setting a time to go for a walk before work, and making myself do it even if I didn’t want to, so that exercise became a regular routine. Eventually, this can become a run or a weight workout too.
  6. Making a meal plan for the week, so I didn’t resort to getting takeaway, or having an ‘easy’ frozen meal.

The PL and I have several bad habits that we’re still trying to break… and we use a method we devised that we call ‘Burpable Offences’.  The basic premise is that we have a list of bad habits that we want to break, and if the other person catches us doing one of these things, we have to do a Burpee immediately (or as soon as you get home if you’re out at the time).  If you get caught doing any other bad habit that day, you do 2 Burpees immediately…. and so on.  If you don’t know what a burpee is you’ll just have to trust me when I say it doesn’t take long before your sub-conscious is acutely watching to make sure you’re not caught… worst case you get super fit!!! 😉

There are many things you can do to help yourself achieve mastery over your brain.  This sense of self-control will make you feel better about yourself, and it will help you take control of other aspects of your life as well.  And remember, that there is  nothing wrong with failure!

Learning to break bad habits and replace them with good ones will all hopefully help lead you to live a much happier and more fulfilled life.  Good luck!

Leave your thoughts!