What are your habits? How do you make a good habit stick?
From completing a daily workout routine, to smoking a cigarette daily after lunch, we all have habits that are both good and bad. “Habits” are a pattern of behaviors that a person engages in regularly and easily, to the point where the behavior becomes automatic. For example, brushing your teeth is a task that we do on a regular basis, and minimal thought is required to perform the action (Claiborn & Pedrick, 2001).

How do you create good habits?
Can you recall learning to ride a bike, read a book or swim for the first time? It may have been difficult or impossible. With effort and practice, it become easier. It may take 3-6 months for your new habit to set in; however, it will take less effort and become a habit with time.

There are reasons why humans develop automatic behaviors. This means, completing actions without needing to put much thought into the task allows us to complete these actions more efficiently, and use our brainpower for new or difficult tasks that require more focus and attention. Studies have shown that the brain processes habits thousands of times, faster than actions that require a thorough thought process to successfully perform (Stosny, 2014; McKay & McKay, 2012). However, when engaging in habitual behaviors, our higher cognitive processes such as reasoning and decision-making function at lower levels, hence why we have the ability to engage in certain routines without being mentally aware (McKay & McKay, 2012).

The Neuroscience behind Habit Formation
Neuroscientists have discovered that a certain part of the brain called the basal ganglia play a significant role in transforming behaviors into habits. When a person first performs a new action, the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for higher functioning analyzes, performs and memorizes the behavior. After repeating that same action many times, the information needed to complete the action transfers to the basal ganglia for the creation of new connections between brain cells (McKay & McKay, 2012; Seger & Spiering, 2011).

Habits that we perform unconsciously are behaviors that have become conditioned responses to stimuli. For example, when one goes to a party and begins to feel anxious, one may automatically reach for a glass of wine to help them relax. In this scenario, anxiety is the stimuli that provoked one to perform the habit of drinking wine to cope with this discomfort.

Addictions such as smoking, drinking, drug use, gambling, shopping, social media use, eating, etc. are suboptimal coping strategies used to alleviate negative feelings, and have the potential to cause major disruption in a person’s life. The long-term impact of using these negative coping strategies on a regular basis can be very damaging to a person’s physical, mental and emotional health. However, the short-term rewards that a person may experience, (such as relaxation, positive emotions, a boost in energy, etc.) are strong enough to cloud a person’s ability to make healthier decisions, and reinforce maladaptive behaviours (Knoly Thege, Woodin, Hodgins & Williams, 2015).

How to Break Bad Habits and Form Healthy Ones?
Breaking bad habits and forming new, healthy ones is quite achievable with proper planning! Here are a few tips to help you get started in making positive changes and continue moving in a positive direction.

Changing old behaviors that are familiar in our lives require a lot of thought, focus and effort. If you have a bad habit that you want to break, it is important to reflect on why you engage in these behaviors in the first place (Stosny, 2014). Ask yourself, how do you feel? What do you do? Why do you do it? When you discover what may trigger your bad habit, it will not only help you understand your own patterns of coping, but will also give you the tools needed to break it.

It is vital to assess how your habits affect your life, both in the present and in the future. Ask yourself, Will my habits make me healthier and stronger, or will they cause serious health issues? Are they affecting my work/relationships/finances/daily functioning in a negative or a positive way?

There is much power in visualizing your success. Think about the desired change that you want to make, and imagine what barriers you may face to fulfilling your goals, and how you will overcome them (Stosny, 2014). Strategically planning how you will get from point A to point B will make the process easier. Being able to foresee the potential benefits of changing your behaviors, (better health, relationships, and finances) may inspire, motivate and empower you to maintain focus and reach success at a faster rate.

The start of your journey will be the most difficult; therefore, creating small, doable goals will help. For instance, a person may start with taking their lunch on time once a week and then gradually increasing the frequency, until it becomes habitual.

It is important to repeat positive behaviors so that these behaviors become habits that will replace old, bad ones that are not good for our health (Stosny, 2014; Goodes, n.d.). By taking lunch on time you are better able to provide patient care.

In order to optimize your chances of success, you can:

  • Make your goal specific and realistic. You may choose to set incremental goals and reward yourself each step of the way you are closer at achieving your goal (Goodes, n.d.).
  • Seek support of family and friends, as well as, you may also receive positive reinforcement from support groups with people who have similar goals (Goodes, n.d.).

It is crucial not get discouraged when you experience a relapse in engaging in unhealthy behaviours. Setbacks happen all the time, and it is normal to feel the urge to go back to old habits (Goodes, n.d.). Instead, remain persistent and continue reaching for your goals. Remember, the more you practice, the closer you are to success. Happy goal setting!

Mind Shift: http://www.anxietybc.com/resources/mindshift
Calm: http://www.calm.com/
FitBit: https://www.fitbit.com/ca
Claiborn, J. & Pedrick, Cherry. (2001). The habit change. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Goodes, J. (n.d.). The science of habit: How to succeed in 2015.Retrieved on December, 2015 from http://breakingmuscle.com/sports-psychology/the-science-of-habit-how-to-succeed-in-2015
Konkoly Thege, B., Woodin, E. M., Hodgins, D. C., Williams, R. J. Natural course of behavioural addictions: a 5-year longitudinal study. Bio Med Central Psychiatry, 1-14.

McKay, B. & McKay, K. (2012, November 20). Unlocking the science of habits: How to hack the habit loop & become the man you want to be. Retrieved on January 2, 2016 from http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/11/20/power-of-habits/

Seger, C. A., & Spiering, B. J. (2011). A Critical Review of Habit Learning and the Basal Ganglia. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience5, 66. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnsys.2011.00066

Stosny, S. (2014, August 16). Changing habits: Choose what you focus on and practice, practice, practice. Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 2015 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201408/changing-habits