How can you change a bad habit into a good one?

A habit is an automatic behavior pattern regularly repeated, reinforced and learned rather than being innate. The Basal Ganglia is the part of the brain responsible for forming habits and the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. So how do you change it?

First, you need to understand the anatomy of a habit. There are environmental and internal triggers that incite us to learn a certain behavior. An internal trigger may be stress, depression or hunger pangs that triggers you to eat. An environmental trigger, may be an alarm set to awake at a certain time each day. Or an alarm sound in your home to remind you to lock the front door as you leave. The behavior associated with that is your routine, your habit and what makes the behavior stick, is the reward. Here, the reward may be that locking the front door to your home creates a feeling of relief that your possessions are now safe. The more habitual the behavior, the easier it is to be ingrained into your brain for an infinite amount of time. What habits do you have that you don’t even have to think about because they are done so routinely?

Think of your brain as two separate entities, the old and new brain.

Within the old brain lives your existing habits, good and bad. Now, the new brain comes along with grandiose ideas to change old bad habits to new good ones. However, here lies the struggle between the two and the reason why the new brain does not triumph over the old brain. You’re all set to walk every day and eat more vegetables each day. Old brain has been happily eating fast food and walking is something you do to fetch your mail 30 feet from your front door. New brain is thinking, walking every day one mile and eating broccoli and kale is important to a healthy life. As you begin that incredible journey towards positive change, the old brain over powers because it decides that the new brain is crazy and this is too much effort thereby reverting to old habits.

So how do you change the bad habit if simply wanting to change isn’t enough?

First, identify the habit, acknowledge what triggers it and what reward do you get from it. Let’s say, stress is your trigger for eating, and your reward is a calm serene feeling. To change the habit (the eating) you will need to identify what triggers it (the stress) and the reward. Stressors will most likely be with you but what triggers it and how you reward it can be changed. If driving in traffic triggers the stress, your choice may be to not drive and find a different way to travel from point A to point B. Instead of the reward being a chocolate chip cookie or a cold beer to calm the internal beast, you now choose to reward yourself with a sweet juicy apple. The old equation is stress equals cold beer or unhealthy sweets. While the new equation is stress equals healthy, still sweet, but now juicy apple. The trigger may remain the same but how you reward it can easily change the habit to something new.

Set Goals & Milestones

Creating new habits requires setting goals and milestones like wanting to lose weight. If your goal is to lose 50 pounds, setting a realistic goal is important to achieve the end result.

Challenging yourself to lose the 50 pounds in a months’ time is great but not very realistic. You didn’t create a bad habit of stress eating overnight so expecting to lose the weight overnight is setting yourself up for failure instead of success. Choose a goal of losing 5 or 8 pounds the first month. Now think about what will motivate you to do this. Did your doctor tell you lose 50 pounds because your life depended on it? That’s a pretty good motivator, isn’t it? But for some it just isn’t. What if that motivator was to lose the weight because not only is the doctor scaring you, but you’ll be able to fit into those clothes you’ve hesitated to give away. That you’ll feel confident and energetic again. That’s an even better motivator! It’s the reason you gave yourself!

You have your weight loss goal, associated trigger (the stress) and reward (old clothes now fitting) for the new habit (exercising and eating healthy) to lose weight and you want to make it stick. This is where you create a new behavior to change the habit. Stress is the trigger but that’s too vague. In this example the stress is caused by being in daily traffic, which triggers the desire to eat “comfort” food i.e. the cold beer or cookie, which results in weight gain or the inability to lose weight. Wayne Dyer said it best, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.”

Your goal, to lose weight. Your motivation, the doctor said it’s life or something worse and those old clothes you almost gave away are waiting for you to fit back in them, the new habit is walking a mile each day along with eating daily vegetables, and the reward is feeling invigorated, empowered, confident and overall feeling good inside and out. Give yourself 2 or 3 new habits to lose weight. One, drink 2 glasses of water before going for your daily walk, knowing you are hydrating your body and creating overall well-being. Two, get plenty of sleep to promote healthy resting time and Three, decide on how long that walk will be, at what time, reminding yourself of how great you feel after!

Last, but not least

Last, but not least, ditching the disruptors (the excuses) of “oh, I didn’t have any water nearby”. It’s simple, you add this behavior to help your new habit. You decide to fill 2 water bottles before leaving the house each morning. No differently then you make sure to lock your front door when you leave. So you now have a new habit to go along with locking your front door. Get a coach, a friend or a family member to help you be accountable, by checking in with you regularly. No one said you should do this alone.

Bad habits can be changed to create new habits. When you do something that feels good, it sticks in your mind and is easily repeated. Therefore, if losing weight makes you feel good, then continue the process. Repeating and ingratiating that good feeling in your brain (basal ganglia).

The short of the long of this, is that change does not happen overnight but can happen in a short time with realistic goals, good habits, and motivating rewards.

I’m a fitness coach in Key Largo who helps people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s live a healthier lifestyle by forming good habits. Learn more about what I do here.