How to Change Habits: 5 Proven Tips

Note: This post is written by Gabriel Smith

Almost half of the decisions you make are simply based on habits.

According to a paper published by Duke University, habits are neurological shorthand that frees our minds from the stress of decision making. This behavioral shorthand gives us more bandwidth to focus on unique tasks of our lives.

Most of us form habits unconsciously, wiring our brains into life-sucking routines that are seemingly impossible to short circuit. Quitting bad habits can be hard, but new research shows you can make a permanent change with the right tools.

Here are five tips on how to change habits.

1. Recognize Your Triggers

Recent research in neurobiology has changed how researchers think about habits. Past research focused on changing the routine of the habit, not on which cue triggers it. By studying triggers and rewards, researchers have gained more insight into how habits really form.

Habits are routines triggered by cues, like a time of day, and reinforced with a reward, like food or socialization. In order to change the routine, you need to become aware of the cues that create a habit and what reward you gain out of it.

Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power Habits,” summarizes this research well:

“Scientists have explained that every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine — the behavior itself — which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more automatic as the cue and reward become neurologically intertwined.”

So, the first step to change a habit is to recognize in what context your habit is triggered. For example, is your desire to smoke increased by being around certain people, a certain place, or after a meal? Gaining consciousness of these subconscious cues empowers you to take the next step for change.

2. Rewire Your Routine

Once you are aware of what triggers your habit, the next step is to either create a plan that hijacks these old cues with a new routine and reward or find a new cue to create a routine and reward around.

After you have created a plan for the new habit you want to cultivate, you are on your way to creating your new routine. Once you are able to identify how your habits work, you have the tools to override your “bad” habits with new ones.

3. Reward Yourself

When evaluating what habit you want to change, you also have to recognize the benefit that habit provides and replicate that reward in the new habit you are creating. Choose a reward that you truly enjoy. For example, if you want to start exercising, your reward could be a small piece of chocolate.

Depriving yourself of a genuinely satisfying reward and relying on “willpower” to create a new habit goes against how your brain creates new neural pathways and habits. Or as Jocelyn Glei, author of “Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done,” puts it:

“If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward.”

4. Sleep and Eat Appropriately

A good night’s sleep rests our brain as well as our body. A well-rested brain handles the stresses of decision making better than a sleep-deprived one. If you are sleep-deprived, your brain is tired and stressed, reducing your ability to make decisions that are not habitual. A tired brain slips into old habits quicker than a well-rested one.

Dr. Sujay Kansagra, director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and a sleep expert for Mattress Firm, recommends, “For adults, a full night’s sleep is typically between seven and nine hours, but everyone is different. So, how do you figure out how much sleep is best for you? If you don’t have any other sleep problems (e.g. sleep apnea), you should wake up feeling refreshed in the morning after a full night of sleep.”

Low blood sugar also stresses out your body and brain. If you don’t eat good food every couple of hours, your blood sugar drops, causing you to be cranky and crave carbs. This state of mind and body inhibits your ability to make rational decisions.

To avoid a drop in your blood sugar, and thus your decision-making ability, it is recommended that you eat a snack or meal every three to five hours.

5. Forgive Relapses and Keep Going

Changing a habit is hard because you are creating new neural pathways or rewiring your brain. You are going to fall back into old habits once in a while—especially in times of stress. Don’t let a relapse discourage you. The best thing to do if you fail is to keep trying.

Remember, once you know how your habit works, you have the power to change it.

“What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change,” said Charles Duhigg in an NPR interview.

– About the Writer –

Gabriel Smith is an ex-business student turned writer and health and wellness expert, finding motivation from his former life as a competitive athlete and trainer. He regularly shares insight on self improvement, self sufficiency, and how humans can better their lives.

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