Changing our Habits
Striving to improve? Reaching for a goal? Discontent with the current situation? The ability to change our habits helps us to ensure success.
The phrase “breaking bad habits” can be detrimental – it assumes you have been doing it wrong, and it reduces your options. In NLP, nothing is taken away, only added. Your habits have served you a purpose, and whether you see them as bad or good, you are using them for a purpose.
We are not born with habits, they are often formed by a frequent repetition of a cue, behavioral pattern, and reward, until the process is embedded into our subconscious learning. Nothing is simple or subconscious when it is being learned – the first time a person bites their nails they must have a reason to want to try it (they notice a hangnail, watch someone else do it, or wonder what it feels like), think about how best to position their fingers, decide which nail to bite first, try out if it is their front teeth or canines that work best, notice how much pressure to apply, and so on. In the early stages these processes are part of our higher level cognitive functions, and require conscious focus and attention. As you repeat the process you begin to embed the routine into your subconscious, until you are doing it without even thinking about it. Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, sit in a different spot at breakfast, or even mix up the left / right order you put your socks on.. these small changes will engage a higher level of thinking. Once a behavior has become a semi-autonomous routine, one that requires little to no conscious effort, it is embedded.
Though you may not realize it, habits have cues or triggers that cause the behavior, and rewards that conclude it. A trigger can be a place, time, feeling, or any sensation. For example, if you obsessively check your phone you could discover what your trigger, behavior and reward is:
Trigger: may be a specific sound or buzzing, time could be your 11am break from work, place could be as you lye in bed at night, a feeling of boredom, a desire for distraction, or even all of these together.
Behavior: checking your phone for messages, emails, scrolling social news feeds, reading news headlines you have no interest in, etc.
Reward: social connection, distraction from boredom or anxiety, a sense of achievement or belonging, and so on.
The point this becomes a deeply ingrained habit is when the anticipation of the reward comes immediately after a trigger, and you then have not only that overwhelming desire to check your phone, but also a feeling of disappointment or frustration if you do not. At your 11am break, lying in bed at night, or when your phone beeps, you try to use will power to not check your phone, but you become distracted and restless.
The golden rule of sustainable change
The golden rule of habit change is to create new options for your behavioral routines, whilst keeping the trigger and the reward the same. Remaining congruent with our subconscious processes is key to creating a sustainable, resourceful change. It sounds so simple, and in fact can be, however many habits are so deeply ingrained that we have very little awareness on what our triggers are. Identifying your triggers and being honest about the reward of the behavior can take time to discover. Creating new options, or ‘competing behaviors’, is also a process that requires thoughtful consideration to ensure it is a well aligned alternative.
As you read this article, you have already begun to recognize the positive intention behind your ‘bad’ habit: Does eating that late night snack stimulate your mind & bring satisfaction? Do you put off doing a ski season for another year because you want to keep your career on track? Do you watch reality TV to laugh & cry – connecting to the characters & sharing their emotion?
These are all very valid, healthy reasons to carry on with these behaviors. Instead of trying to ‘break’ these habits, let’s recognize the positive intention and what they are providing for us. What if you could achieve the same result, via a more desirable choice?
The beauty of changing habits is that by definition, they are our choice and within our control. Once you accept you are capable of change, you just need to learn how.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”― Barack Obama
When you are moving towards a goal, or moving away from a problem, you are creating new options and changing. When change is done with intent & purpose, you will find it is welcomed and often easier than believed to be. People often feel stuck with their bad habits because they don’t have one or all of the following: a) the desire; b) the ability; c) the knowledge of how to change.
Top 5 tips for changing habits:
1: Recognize what is within your control, what are you capable of choosing to change?
2: Search for the purpose of your habit – what is the positive intention & what has this been providing for you?
3: Give yourself permission to explore other options, come up with a few ways to get the same result via a different method.
4: Take the time to identify the most congruent choices, ask yourself is there anything stopping you from pursuing these new options?
5: Take those first steps, visualize yourself changing and see how it feels!
Be aware of each small step you take..
“Just take any step, whether small or large. And then another and repeat day after day. It may take months, maybe years, but the path to success will become clear” -Aaron Ross
Expectations are important to keep in check & to keep yourself on track. Allow yourself to recognize progress, no matter how small it seems. Even reading this article is a step in the right direction!