So, habits are pretty much the human version of automation.
You do one thing often enough, you brain will take over and start producing the most efficient results with the least amount of effort from you. You don’t have to think about it or plan for it or convince yourself to do it. One cue from the environment and you’ll slide seamlessly into action.
Like scratching an itch, you can train your mind to react in a predetermined way through repetition and consistency. Benjamin Gardner of the Health Behaviour Research Centre notes that:
“Decades of psychological research consistently show that mere repetition of a simple action in a consistent context leads, through associative learning, to the action being activated upon subsequent exposure to those contextual cues (that is, habitually). Once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates. Habits are also cognitively efficient, because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks.”
Knowing that habit formation will cumulatively impact your life in the future, it is a worthy investment to work on building them into your daily routines.
The problem is that a lot of us try to create new habits in addition to everything that we’re already doing, which more often than not leads to a deficit in either time, energy, or other crucial resources needed to sustain these new habits.
What we can do in this case, is to exchange one established habit for a more beneficial new one; this way, you’re killing two birds with one stone. Eliminating something that’s not useful, and replacing it with a more desirable option.
The habits that you switch out don’t necessarily have to be harmful in the traditional sense either. Some habits are neutral, like spending hours in front of your television, or binge-watching a show on Netflix. And some are just routines that may have outlived their usefulness in your life. If you can identify these habits whose importance is not high enough, then you’ll have a prime piece of your life to upgrade with a new and improved routine.
This also applies when you’re trying to break a bad habit. It is important to note that all the things that we do habitually tend to fulfill a certain need in our lives. The “mindless” snacking might be a result of low energy levels, hunger or boredom.
It therefore becomes hard to just will yourself into not eating between meals anymore. Eliminating those snacks without understanding the root cause of the problem will simply create a void that becomes harder and harder to sustain with time, which usually leaves us exactly where we started.
To break a bad habit, you’ll need to start by monitoring yourself to try and understand why you do what you do. As soon as you have it figured out, you can devise a means to replace the habit with a better one that fulfills the same needs.
If you realize that you tend to drink more than you’d like when you’re in social gatherings, you could organize to meet up in a place that doesn’t serve drinks. Maybe participate in a sporting event instead. This way, you’re still fulfilling the emotional need of connecting with your friends, while also working on getting physically fitter and in better health.
You don’t have to change your entire life or create more hours in the day in order to become a better person. You only need to identify the things you already do that aren’t currently contributing to your growth, and replace them with more intentional and beneficial practices.