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How to Break an Unwanted Habit

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to break old habits? How about this question: How are our habits formed and what causes them to repeat themselves over and over again? While our knowledge is still woefully incomplete when it comes to the human brain, we know more today than at any other time in history.

Consider, for example, a part of our brain called the basal ganglia. While there is much we don’t know about this tiny little organ buried in our brain, we are starting to learn more about how this part of our brain functions relative to forming and executing habits. It has been consistently demonstrated that procedural learning and routine behaviors are run by this part of the brain.

We’ve learned that the basal ganglia operates to provide us with shortcuts to accomplish tasks so that we don’t have to start our thinking from scratch every time we perform an action or think through every little detail. Instead, this part of our brain remembers tasks to help us perform with less effort. So once you’ve done something a few times, the basal ganglia stores the actions which allows the execution to be automatic without you having to think about it.

The trouble lies in the fact that we forget about how a number of unwanted habits were formed in the first place. This can make it challenging to change habits unless we know how to rewire the various automatic programs that have become stored in the basal ganglia. Some researchers now call these programs “Habit Loops.” Again, the challenge is that these habit loops typically run without any conscious knowledge.

Yet if we breakdown how these habit loops are formed, we can alter them to create more desirable habits. Here is the essence of how a habit is formed:

1. A need, desire, or craving exists that you want to fulfill.

2. A trigger, stimuli, or cue initiates a specific habit program that has fulfilled this desire in the past.

3. A routine, set of actions, or behaviors is automatically performed in order to satisfy your craving as quickly as possible.

4. A reward or benefit is provided which serves to further strengthen the habit and keep the cycle spinning.

In essence, a loop program runs when it’s executed and continues to run as long as a reward is in place to keep it running. And since these habit loops serve deeply held needs or cravings of one kind or another, we can easily become trapped by habits unless we learn how to change them or establish new ones.

Remember Samuel Johnson’s famous quote: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” While there is great truth is this quote, it shouldn’t discourage you from changing unwanted habits. The chains of a habit can be broken!

Indeed, a habit can be rewired. The question is how?

First of all, remind yourself that your habit has four parts as previously discussed including the craving, trigger, routine, and reward. This means you need to examine each element of a habit so you can begin the rewiring process. So ask yourself these four questions to uncover what’s driving your habit:

1. What desire, need, or craving am I trying to fulfill?

2. What triggers, stimuli, or cues remind me of my desire or need or craving?

3. What automatic routine, behavior, or set of actions am I performing without even thinking about it?

4. What reward am I experiencing from this habit?

Once you’ve answered those four questions, you are ready to attack the habit head on using the following four questions:

1. What is the best way to satisfy my desire, need, or craving?

2. What do I need to remember when the cue or trigger for the craving presents itself?

3. What new behavior, action, or routine would better serve me?

4. How can I reward myself at an even higher level than the old reward?

Consider the problem of overeating or eating the wrong things. It starts with the desire, need, or craving we all share for food. This craving is not going away because we have to eat to survive. The question is what program are you running to fulfill this need? When you are triggered by natural feelings of hunger, do you reach for a candy bar or an apple? You’ll get a reward from eating anything that you enjoy but the question is what have you trained yourself to enjoy, a candy bar or an apple? The difference between the two is huge.

Here’s another example, take the need for certainty that we all share. Without some predictability in our environment, it’s difficult to even function in life. But the question is how to fulfill your need for certainly? Are you fulfilling your need in a way that’s good for you, good for others, and serves the greater good?

Consider someone who desires certainty. The focus becomes one of trying to control things in the world that could take away control. It might look like this:

1. CRAVING = Certainty (You want to be in total control of your life.)

2. TRIGGER = Something from the environment looks like it will take away your control. (A stock market crash would dramatically change your net worth.)

3. ROUTINE = You sense some danger in the world which alerts you of the need to respond which might even include activating your “fight or flight response” if the danger seems serious enough. (You become tense and agitated by news that the economy and stock market are on the verge of collapse so you start thinking about changes you might need to make to your portfolio.)

4. REWARD = You feel a sense of relief if you can come up with a solution. (You develop a diversified portfolio that takes into consideration all of the things that can happen including inflation, deflation, prosperity, or crash. However, the fact of the matter is that you can’t control the stock market so even with an intelligent plan you become stuck in the loop of trying to solve something you can’t ultimately control. You can become so stuck that eventually this pattern leads you to depression, anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. In fact, the OCD causes you to keep running this loop endlessly until a full-blown panic attack completely immobilizes you.)

So what’s the solution? You need a new habit loop or habit program.

Here’s an example of new code or programming you could install into your current habit loop:

1. CRAVING = Certainty

2. TRIGGER = Something from the environment looks like it will take away my control.

3. ROUTINE = You need to think clearly and rationally about the perceived problem and decide if it’s something you can control or influence. This involves adding a new “If-Then-Else Statement” in the code which goes something like this: “If I can control or influence the situation, then execute the solution. If I can’t control or influence the situation, then execute the else part of the program which means I need to relax and let it be.”

4. REWARD = You transform the energy of the “fight or flight response” with the corresponding hormones into positive energy for action or peaceful energy for relaxation.

After testing this new code for a few days or weeks, you’ll discover that it allows you to control the things that are in your power to control while accepting the things that are outside of your power to control. You then continue running this new code until it completely replaces the old habit loop so that your basal ganglia will now run the new habit for you automatically.

So think about the habit loops running in your life that perhaps need to be tweaked, altered, or completely rewritten.

If you’d like some help breaking an unwanted habit, consider signing up for a FREE coaching session to uncover your current program and then get the help you need to create some better code.

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The Best New Year’s Resolution Ever

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions or do you consider them a waste of time?

A recent survey showed that 45% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions while 73% give up on their resolutions before reaching them. The top four resolutions most people make in order of priority include weight loss and financial gain followed by exercise (to help with the weight loss) and getting a new job (to help with the financial gain).

After reading the survey, I decided to give this business of New Year’s Resolutions some thought to see if I could come up with something more interesting than the standard resolutions. I wanted to do something this year that would change my life starting on day one and return dividends everyday without fail. How about joining me in a different kind of New Year’s Resolution?

Here’s what I came up with:


Now that may not seem like the greatest New Year’s Resolution ever but I’m willing to argue that it is.

The most profound truth in life is that we only get to live in the present moment, but we usually miss it because we’re ruminating over things that happened in the past or we’re thinking about something that might happen in the future. And, of course, while we are caught in the grips of the past and the future, we miss the most important experience in life and the only moment we get which is the present moment. If this sounds a bit abstract or overly philosophical, stay with me for moment as we explore this idea.

Begin this new path by resolving to experience more of your life by reminding yourself every day to live in the present moment. It only takes a moment … or perhaps a “present moment”. If you join me with this resolution, I can promise you that it won’t be easy but it has the potential to be the most important idea you ever learn in life. After all, we often use the word “enlightened” or “awakened” to describe individuals who have achieved this goal. But let’s not set the bar that high for this year. How about living in the present moment for at least one moment every day? That’s doable, right? And what if after a bit of practice this concept starts to really take hold in your life? Is there anything more important than being present for your life?

Don’t allow this concept to get too airy-fairy with too much spiritual woo-woo. That’s entirely unnecessary. Experiencing the present moment involves learning to wake up to the life you have in each moment. It involves being fully alive in the only time you are alive which is now. It’s not that you won’t be alive in the next moment or next day or next week or so on but when those moments occur it will be as a present moment.

Think about it this way. Your life equals the experiences you have lived combined with the emotions and feelings you attach to those experiences — i.e., life is a mixture of thoughts, emotions, and sensations including all sensory perceptions. Yet at the core of this is your consciousness or that part of you that is the witness experiencing what’s happening. So the best way to live requires you to be conscious and awake in the moment where everything takes place. Again, you are the consciousness behind your thoughts, emotions, and sensory perceptions but you have to be awake to not miss them.

Consider the fact that most people completely miss their life. How many people have you heard say, “I don’t know where the day went?” (Or, “I don’t know where my life went?”) Haven’t you noticed how most people live in a dream-like state where they are just going through the motions without really focusing on what’s happening or what’s most important in each moment?

Being conscious in the present moment is at the core of the human experience and it’s the core of who you are. Everything you most want in life is contained in the present moment. Most people say that they want to be happy but they don’t know how to find it or experience it. Here’s a clue, happiness can only be found in the present moment. You can’t be happy in the past or in the future but only in the present moment. In fact, you can’t experience anything in any place other than the present moment. If you think about something pleasurable from the past or something pleasurable in the future, the experience you are having is still in the present moment. You are remembering something or projecting something in the present moment.

Try this. Focus your attention on your breathing and the fact that you are alive and aware. Now you’re in the moment. Now let’s add who you are to this moment. Do you know who you are? Unfortunately, most people are never taught who they are but it’s simply this.

You are the consciousness that experiences the present moment. You don’t have to believe anything because you can experience this right now. The essence of who you are is the conscious being or witness of the present moment. That’s it.

This may not make much sense right now but resolve to focus on the present moment in this fashion once a day and then see what happens. If you become bored, you can always go back to focusing on the past or the future which isn’t all bad, especially if you resolve to learn from the past and invest what you learn into a more exciting future. But if you miss the present moment, you’ve missed what’s most important. It’s where you are right now and it’s the place where everything happens. When the director says “ACTION”, that’s the present moment.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with an old story about two fish having a conversation about how to develop a better awareness of the essence of life – i.e., consciously experiencing their life. As the story goes, the enlightened fish is trying to explain the essence of life to his fellow fish who can best be described as a seeker who wants to be more alive and enlightened. The enlightened fish finally uses the word “water” to try to explain the world in which the fish live. The seeker fish doesn’t understand. It’s not making sense. As the seeker fish becomes more and more frustrated and confused he finally says to his enlightened teacher, “I don’t get it. Where is this water of which you speak?”

Water for a fish is like the air we breathe. We don’t usually think about it or even recognize that it’s there yet it is essential to our life. Take away air and we lose our life. The same can be said for awareness or consciousness which most of us rarely even consider. But without our awareness and consciousness of the moment, we are missing life. It is our ability to bring our minds to the present moment that is at the center of the life experience.

Without being conscious or aware of the moment, you are in a dream-like state in the past or the future. It’s your awareness of everything that is happening in your life right now that is the essential you. It’s your aliveness. It’s who you are. Take a moment every day and experience it.

There are infinite things to grab your attention and distract you from who you are. Yet the aliveness that exists inside of you is better than any distraction you will ever experience.

Try entering into the present moment today. And then try it again tomorrow. You may discover it is the secret to finding yourself and living your best life.

If you’d like a few simple steps to help you enter the present moment, try these:

1. Focus on your breathing by noticing the movement of the air flowing in and out of your body.

2. Notice your thoughts but don’t resist them or react to them. Just notice them.

3. Notice your emotions but again don’t resist them. Just notice them.

4. Notice all of the sensory perceptions both inside your body as well as outside your body such as sounds, smells, motions, etc.

5. Think about a moment when you have looked through a window at something outside but suddenly realized that you could also see your reflection through the window looking back at you as if looking in a mirror. Notice what that moment felt like to be the one who is observing while also being the observer. Now decide if you are the observed or the observer.

Remember you can always go back to thinking about the past or projecting yourself into the future anytime you wish. But why not try the present moment and see what changes you notice, and determine if those changes allow you to become more conscious, awake, and alive.