In last month’s newsletter, we featured some of our ideas for Hardwiring healthy habits.

We hope you have had some success strengthening habits you want to have.

What about unhealthy habits, habits that have gone haywire or have even become addictive?  What then?

There has been much scientific study investigating how to stop or change unhealthy habits, helping us to understand some of the physical and psychological factors that can keep us stuck in behaviour patterns we wish we could stop.

Some of the most effective strategies are:

Figure out what the rewards are – and replace them. Even if we hate a habit, we keep doing it because the habit provides us with some sort of satisfaction or psychological reward. For example, you eat junk food when you know it will lead to you feeling bad about yourself, and weight gain. Why aren’t those reasons enough to stop you? Because eating the junk food is also pleasurable, and feels like a treat after a tough day. So instead, experiment to find a healthier treat, as well as one that is even more satisfying.

Set up your environment to make the unhealthy habit difficult to do and an alternative habit easy to do. Perhaps you leave your wallet at home so you can’t buy junk food on the way home, and you invite a friend to cook a healthy meal with you so the enjoyable company acts as a reward.

Identify what the triggers are – so you can avoid or change them. Triggers or cues are what occur immediately before you in the habit. An obvious trigger is smelling freshly baked biscuits, feeling your mouth salivate, then immediately devouring one. Triggers can be places, people, time (of the day/in the week) and emotions. When you find yourself thinking about your habit, see if you can notice what has just happened – Who are you with? What are you doing? How are you feeling?

Ask for help and set up solid support. Tell people you trust, and who you know genuinely care about you, what habit you are trying to change or stop. Let them know how they can best support you (e.g. “Come walking with me after work instead of asking me to go out for drinks”), including how they can help you replace rewards and change triggers. Some people also find it helpful to attend a support group, or in an online support forum.

Become curious. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer has shown that paying more attention in the moment when we are wanting to in the habit, whatever it is, helps us to have more distance from it, and therefore to have a stronger chance of doing something different. He suggests paying attention to our thoughts (What is going through my mind right now?), emotions (How am I feeling right now?), and bodies (What is happening in my body right now? Tension? Excitement?). That way, we can see more clearly what might be driving our actions. Understanding more clearly also helps us to be less reactive.

We recommend experimenting with each of these different strategies. Become more curious and investigate which ones are most effective for you?