One of the questions I’m frequently asked as a Psychologist is how to break habits – it might be eating junk food, overeating or snacking, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, snapping at children or avoiding exercise. I’m not sure where the idea of ‘breaking a habit” actually originated but I do know it’s not really helpful from a psychological point of view.
Far more helpful than breaking a habit is making a habit – rather than being focused on what you don’t want to be doing, get focused on what you do want to do and practise that.
“Sounds easy” you say – just do more of what you want to be doing. Well – that’s partly right and identifying what you want to be doing is often the easy part – eat more vegetables, put less on my plate, exercise for 30 minutes a day, limit alcohol to two nights per week and so on.
There are several aspects of change and making a new habit to be aware of if you want to go the distance and really make it a lasting change.
Firstly – it takes much longer than you think – common wisdom is 21 days to make a new habit but the psychological research tells us that it can vary between individuals, up to 250 days – over 8 months!
Secondly, make sure you have a realistic “picture” of change. Change is almost never uniform and steady. It’s much more common to have plateaus and reversals (what some people call “lapses”) and for the whole process to look like “two steps forward and one step back”.
Thirdly – make sure you have support while you’re changing. Let a close friend or two know what you’re doing or tell a trusted family member. Having non-judgmental but encouraging support from those close to us can make a big difference to how well you manage the process of making a new habit.
Finally – don’t lose hope if you feel like your first attempt to make a new habit wasn’t successful. Long standing habits (which are usually the ones we want to change) are almost literally hard-wired into your brain. Changing them takes time and often repeated efforts – don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it all in one go.
If you want to make a new habit, go for it – be patient, be realistic, be supported and be persistent!