According to the National Institute of Health, habits or patterns of behavior form through repetition combined with stimulating the pleasure/reward centers of your brain. When you trigger these centers, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical associated with good feelings. This release of dopamine reinforces the habit, triggering the desire to perform the pleasure inducing behavior again.
How To Stop Unwanted Habits
If you experience unwanted behaviors try these brainy strategies:
- Acknowledge the habit. Articulate and develop a compelling vision of your future self. This is the key that unlocks the door to self-efficacy (capability) and self-esteem (value).
- Visualize your vision. Visualization is a powerful tool that can help you change your behaviors. Take time to reflect and visualize yourself avoiding your bad habit and replacing it with a healthier one.
- Identify the specific behaviors you need to change. Healthy habits and wellness is not the absence of disease but rather the presence of wellbeing and the culmination of life and health-giving habits. Avoid over analyzing the causes of obstacles, barriers, setbacks, and challenges. Instead explore and generate the idea of new possibilities for overcoming challenges by staying positive, appreciating your strengths, brainstorming alternatives and mobilizing your resources.
- Identify the triggers that lead to those specific behaviors. By identifying the emotional, physical, and psychological stimulus that lead to these rituals, you can plan ahead to prevent or avoid the possibility of a lapse before it occurs.
- Set SMART behavioral goals. Specific, measurable, action-based, realistic, and time-lined. Break down the goal into incremental goals that are scaled appropriately for successes. Motivation alone without a clear wellness plan doesn’t propel one into action and often withers in the face of adversity. With a well-defined plan of action, however, you know exactly what is necessary to achieve the desired outcome and to make your vision a new reality. Focus on one habit at a time. While you may want to change everything all at once, it’s best to focus your mental and emotional energy on changing just one habit at a time. That way your focus isn’t diluted. It feels great when we have adopted a new habit and we become confident that we can sustain the new habit in the foreseeable future. The key is to move from extrinsic inducements to intrinsic motivation and contentment.
- Use intentional design – Plan to replace only one measurable behavior per goal that holds intrinsic (internal) value and is not imposed from the outside. As a powerful way to create a new positive behavior it must be replaced with an interesting new activity for an unwanted behavior. This requires your thought process to be receptive to new possibilities that challenge and compete with those old practices. The caveat is that replacing that unwanted habit requires planning; the alternative action must be available, able to be performed at a moment’s notice. And the alternative activity must be appealing enough to compete with the unwanted behavior.
- Rewards are a key factor in the behavioral change process. When people believe their capabilities exceed a challenge, they feel positive and energized because the outcome is not only desirable but it was achievable. It is vital to feel you have the capacity to tackle your habits head on and it is just as important to experience a quick “win,” to enjoy the achievement and celebrate such rewards to fully engage with and sustain the change process.
- Be overt and vocal – When you tell your friends and family you are trying to break bad habits and form new ones, you do two things. First, you build a network of supportive people who can help you through the difficult times. Second, you create a level of accountability for yourself by engaging others in your process.
- Take one step at a time. In most cases, it is wise to scale back gradually; cold turkey isn’t the way to go. If you’re trying to make a major life change such as giving up processed foods or become a vegan, you may want to break the change into smaller action steps that you can incorporate as you feel comfortable. Think of change as a disruption in the normal way of operating, whether positive or negative it takes practice. People are most comfortable when they can influence what is happening to them.
- Practice relapse prevention – even after we master a new behavior, there is always the possibility to get sidetracked. Shifts happen. New challenges emerge. Develop strategies to prevent relapses. Give yourself a break. Everyone falls off the wagon from time to time. If you slip up and revert to your bad habit, don’t resort to negative self-talk. Instead, acknowledge the slip and recommit to your new, better habits.
- Avoid self-justification. The human brain is sneaky! Without realizing we do it, our brains justify thousands of behaviors and choices that adversely affect our mental and physical well being. Learn to listen to your internal voice and learn to recognize when you justify behaviors. People choose to make specific changes at specific times and for specific reasons when they are ready, willing and able.
- Understand the power of accountability. Keep a journal. Identify, explore, prioritize and emotionally connect with your journal by listing potential benefits to be derived from making change lasting. If you know you’ll be writing things down at the end of each day, you’ll be more likely to hold yourself accountable for the goals you set for yourself.
- Focus on behaviors you can change. The thinking/feeling work around our significant challenges, lead to the same work around realistic strategies for moving forward. Maintain a flexible mindset. Keep changes simple. The more rules you set up for yourself, the more difficult they will be to adhere to. Think of change as “trial and correction.”
- Practice decisional balance. Make a list of pros and cons. How will your life and health be better if you break this unwanted habit? How does the habit benefit you now? The exercise called decisional balance will help you make a list of reasons to break the habit and reasons to not break it – allowing you to weigh the pros and cons. Hopefully, when you see how much the benefits of breaking the unwanted behavior outweigh the risks of maintaining it, the decision becomes clearer and easier.
- Get back on track right away. Don’t use slips ups as a reason to give up. Instead, stay the course. No excuses. It’s easy to make excuses to return to negative patterns of behavior. Maintain your integrity by keeping the promises you’ve made to yourself and accept no excuses.
- Live in the moment. One of the most difficult aspects of breaking an unwanted habit is by looking to the future and trying to determine how you will hold up over the long-term. Instead, focus on the moment. Live in the “now.” The now is more real than tomorrow.
- Practice affirmations. Live in the present tense, as if you are already that person. Every day, look at yourself in the mirror and state a positive affirmation about breaking your habit. For example, if you’re trying to stop smoking, you might affirm, “I am smoke free, healthy, and happy.” I truly believe meditation and your form of prayer and spiritual connection is really important.
- Conquer your unwanted habits. Unwanted behaviors are triggered only at certain impulse moments. These brief periods of time push your brain to forget any alternative action and it is at this point in time you break your positive momentum by potentially giving in to the urge of an unwanted practice. The impulse moment is a critical tipping point in the brain’s conscious attempt to conquer the unwanted habit, because of the potential to derail even the best attempt to change.
- Relinquish control – if you want to transform your mind you must lose your objective mind and let go of the perception of your current state of reality. You must give up the old mindset of what you think you know and become fully cognizant of the unconscious patterns of behavior you wish to change. With consistent practice, redirecting your urges starts to build new patterns on which to create your new self. Disengaging from the habit of being yourself contributes consciously and energetically to making room for the new you. To make it over the finish line, you need to have carved out an alternative appealing strategy, one that can compete with the negative power of your unwanted behavior.
- Repetition – a new signature personality requires lots of practice and rehearsal time. Repetition helps form the neurological web of patterns that will become familiar to the new you. Feed your brain with new knowledge, experiences and learning to allow your neurons to weave new connections. The more your cells fire together, the easier it will produce the new thinking at will. Like an amazing actor you must think, act, feel and become that character. This is when you are ready to go on stage.
- The ability to influence behavioral change is largely dependent on being prepared for what will happen. Preparedness is contingent on establishing accurate expectations about the future. Be patient, be confident and ready for the new you. It takes a year to eighteen months for major change to take root.
When you consistently choose to practice healthy behaviors and disconnect from the unhealthy and unwanted practices, you will be amazed that there is another reward system at work within the brain. These new patterns of behavior will become part of your rewired neural pathways, no longer allowing impulses and urges to dictate your life. Your brain will give your body a more solid foundation for functioning better.
You and your habits are the ones held accountable for defining, shaping, redirecting and living your life in a mindful way. All you need to do is step up to the plate with new thinking, inspiring ideas, a willingness to experiment, rehearsal, learning from mistakes and try again. The body, mind, and energy all exert an influence in actively shaping future habits and you either consciously take them into account or stand back and watch the damage unfold. “The best way to do is to be,” said Lao Tzu about 2,500 years ago.