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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.