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Why is it so hard to create new healthy habits?

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

If I were to ask the question, what was the first thing you did when you got out of bed this morning, what would you say?

If I asked which shoe you put on first this morning what would you say, the left or the right?

Could you tell me or was it so unconscious you barely even noticed. Before I learnt about habit change I too would have had no clue how best to learn new habits and change old ones. So hopefully this overview will serve a purpose and help you make the changes you want to any new healthy habits you are trying to cultivate!

So what is a habit?

It’s a usual way of behaving, it’s an action you do often in a regular or repeated way. In other words it’s something so automatic, it would feel weird if you didn’t do it! My best example here would be brushing your teeth, I bet most of you perform this action every day but are barely aware when you do.

How do we create habits?

There are three factors involved in habit creation as follows: early conditioning, unconscious programming and automated brain circuitry. These three factors create a perfect recipe for habits so ingrained into our daily routines we don’t often notice them. And for those of you wondering what automated brain circuitry is, it’s when the brain conserves energy for important bodily functions like digestion, hormone production and physical exertion.

A whopping seventy percent of all the actions you perform every day are not actual decisions but habits, which is when the brain stops fully participating in decision making. They are automatic actions and therefore habitual, meaning you are performing them largely unconsciously!

How long does it take to create a habit?

This depends on two different elements, how habitual you are as a person (are you flexible/spontaneous or routine lead/structured) and how complex the behaviour is you are trying to change. Therefore there is no exact science in how long a habit takes to form, but it can be between 18 to 234 days, with an average being 66 days or 12 weeks.

The habit loop

In order to fully understand habits, you need to be aware of the habit loop. This is taken from Charles Duhigs book ‘The power of habit’ where he breaks down a habit into three different parts. A simple yet really effective way to learn how habits work and how you can change them.

Example habit loop:

Cue - you arrive home at 6pm

Routine - you head to the kitchen and open the cupboards or fridge

Reward - you eat a biscuit or packet of crisps

Breaking habits

Habits are well worn neural circuitry in the brain, you can’t merely stop a habit and hope it will go away or rely on will power alone. How many of you have tried and failed. Have you joined the gym at New Year (for your annual resolution) with the promise of going four times a week only to have run out of momentum by early February? Have you said you’re going to go running each day which lasted a week and you lost interest? Said you’re going to stop eating crisps for a month and caved two weeks in, then eaten six bags in one sitting!? I hear you my friends and I will say it again they are not easy to change!

In order to change a habit, you need to create an alternative pattern that will become the new default loop with conscious repetition over time. To do this you need to disrupt or strategically alter the habit loop and this can be done by restructuring, reprogramming or looking at the element of a habit reward.

Another top tip while doing this is to bring yourself to the present and be very aware of the habit you are changing by staying mindful, present, conscious and curious!

Altering the habit loop

By restructuring your environment in other words, by changing or removing the CUE.

An example: You are triggered to get a takeaway for dinner because you walk past one on your way home and it smells delicious! Change your route, find another way home removing the ‘cue’. In addition if you have a meal already planned, you will know there’s a healthy dinner for you when you get home not leaving you with guilt or regret!

By reprogramming your response in other words, by changing the ROUTINE (action/behaviour)

An example: You recognise reaching for a chocolate bar at 3pm is really because you need a distraction from staring at the computer. Set an alarm to take a break at 3pm but swap the chocolate bar for a breath of fresh air outside/get a coffee/ get a healthy snack instead. This method preserves the reward of having the afternoon break but changes the routine in a more positive way.

By being conscious of the cravings that drive behaviours around the REWARD:

An example: At 3pm you have a cup of tea and a biscuit, what are you craving? A break from your desk, a cup of tea, a biscuit, a change of scenery, socialisation of seeing people at the tea station. Become aware of your craving, see how you feel if you change the reward and leave fifteen minutes before asking yourself WHAT it was that drove the behaviour? What were you craving and be mindful & aware of your rewards - are they really worth it?

By choosing an intervention to restructure or reprogram an existing habit loop, you are replacing an old habit for a more conscious and deliberate new habit of your choosing. You’re altering the existing brain pattern to support this new habit creation and changing the existing circuitry rather than creating an entirely new circuitry. This is why new habits are SO hard to start from scratch and why that New Year’s resolution is usually over and done with by February!

Creating new habits

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits suggests four ways to make a new habit easier to instil.

Make the habit visible not invisible e.g if you want to drink more water, keep a water bottle in front of you all day long

Make the habit attractive or not attractive e.g if you want to start running, buy yourself some lovely new trainers and running kit that you want to wear

Make the habit easy or difficult e.g you want to start a weekly walk so arrange to go with a friend and make yourself accountable to that friend, making it easier for you to go

Make the habit satisfying or not satisfying e.g download one of the habit apps and mark off your habits as you go, try Streaks for iphone or Habit Now for Android.

Habits make up your lifestyle, change your habits, change your life!

If you struggle to change habits and want to create healthier habits, my coaching can support you. I’m a mindset and behaviour change coach specialising in wellness, get in touch or fill out my contact form to find out how to work with me Contact.

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