How to change the habit you feel bad about? How can you get rid of bad habits and instead acquire habits of success? Why do habits have so much power?This article answers all your questions and delivers you 4 neurobiologically correct and fast steps that will get you closer to your better habits! πŸ™‚

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - break the habit

TL;DR How to change the habit that makes you feel bad is not witchcraft. It’s all about routine and consistency.

If you want to change your life, you have to change your habits

Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle had already understood the power of habits:

Many of the activities that we repeatedly perform in the same way and in the same context become habits over time.

Whether we like it or not does not matter.

Our life is determined by habits

More than 40% of our everyday decisions are based on habits. [s]

Our habits are stored in an evolutionarily old part of the brain: the basal ganglia. It is also where heartbeat and breathing are controlled.

Just like heartbeat and respiration, our habits run largely unconsciously and automatically.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - woman in white shirt using smartphone

How habits work

In the book The Power of Habit (*) Charles Duhigg describes the structure of habits as a so-called habit loop.

The habitual loop consists of three elements

These three events take place one after the other:

  1. Trigger/Cue: The habit is triggered by a particular place, time, emotion or event.
  2. Routine: Performing the observable habit (snacking, smoking, swearing, nose drilling, etc.).
  3. Reward: The release of the reward bulb dopamine in the brain. The reward is the reason why habits develop.

A personal example

I used to have a bad habit of turning off my alarm clock in the morning to get back into bed.

The ringing of the alarm clock was the trigger for this routine, and the reward was that I was allowed to go back to the warm bed and continue sleeping.

Habits cannot be deleted again

For each habit, there are corresponding connections in the brain.

Since these connections remain permanent, unwanted habits cannot easily be removed from the repertoire of behaviors.

Once you have learned how to swim or cycle, you will retain this ability for a lifetime. The same applies to habits.

If you want to get rid of habits, you have to replace the routines with a new one.

Every habit is different

There are simple habits, such as putting cutlery on an empty plate after a meal, and there are more complicated habits, such as parking a car backward.

Some habits are performed several times an hour, while others occur only once a day or less.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - green grass near the gray road

How long does it take to change a habit?

A few years ago, the media reported that it took 66 days to form a new habit.

Behind this information is a 2009 publication by a team of researchers at University College London. [s]

How the researchers came to 66 days

The researchers wanted to find out how long it takes for the test persons to perform a new regular activity largely unconsciously.

These were very simple activities. Here are two examples from the study:

  • Drinking a glass of water for lunch
  • Eating a piece of fruit after a meal

The test persons had to indicate how easy it was for them to do the job.

From an arbitrarily fixed perceived lightness, one assumed a habit.

In the shortest case, it lasted 18 days, and in the longest case, it lasted 254 days. The mean value was 66 days.

Habits and people are different

If you look at the raw data of the study, you will come to the conclusion that 30 days fit better than 66 days.

The extremely large range of 18 to 254 days already indicates that exact time data are useless anyway.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - bunch of blueberries one grape

Replacing an old habit takes significantly longer than making a new habit

It is said that it takes about 10 times as long to correct an incorrectly learned movement in sport as it takes to learn the same movement correctly from the outset.

For the replacement of unpleasant habits, this means:

It probably takes considerably longer than 30 or 66 days.

It's the reward that counts

In the habitual loop, the reward follows the routine, that is, when you receive the reward, you have already executed the routine.

Can’t you just skip the reward?

No, the reward is absolutely necessary.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - two strawberry doughnuts with sprinkles

Without reward, no habit will form

From the point of view of the brain, the sole purpose of a routine is to receive the reward. Routine is only a means to an end.

When one practices a new habitual loop, the brain learns over time to anticipate the reward.

A desire for the reward arises, and this desire drives the habitual loop.

The reward may be anything that leads to the release of dopamine in the brain.

A reward can also be a beautiful thought or a daydream associated with positive feelings.

Removing the reward will increase desire.

If the reward is denied, the brain will increase the desire for the reward.

However, the reward is usually so closely linked to the routine that it cannot be separated.

Training and tactics play a role in changing habits

You can't throw a habit out a window. You have to box it down the stairs, step by step (Mark Twain)Click To Tweet

Until a new habitual loop has formed, the new routine must be consciously executed.

The same trigger should always be used. The reward is also important.

Key habits: Killing several birds with only one stone

Key habits are habits that act like levers or trigger chain reactions.

Certain habits can be key habits. But you can’t force it.

Example Key Habit Sports

It can happen that someone who starts exercising regularly unconsciously also starts eating healthier food or smoking less.

Sport has changed an inner attitude.

Also, diary writing is often a key habit.

Changing habits - concrete procedure

An unwanted habit can be replaced by a better habit in four steps.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - number 4

#1 | Identify the routine

The first step is to identify the routine. This is easy and in most cases already done.

#2 | Finding the reward

The second step is to find out what the reward is. In some cases the reward is obvious, but in other cases, there are several possibilities.

For the evening snacking of sweets, there are (at least) these two options for the reward:

  • Satisfying a feeling of hunger
  • Distraction from boredom

In order to find out which of the possibilities is appropriate, one has to experiment.

Instead of sweets, you could eat an apple and see if it satisfies you.

#3 | Finding the trigger

In the third step, the trigger is searched for. Duhigg explains that anything could be the trigger.

But there are five typical triggers that cover almost everything in practice:

  • A specific day or time of day
  • A specific location
  • A certain emotional state
  • The presence of certain other people
  • The immediately preceding action

In order to identify the trigger of the habit, the state of each of the five probable triggers is recorded for each occurrence of the habit.

Once you have collected some data sets, you compare them and look for a pattern:

Which of the conditions was always the same?

#4 | Set up a plan

The fourth step is to draw up a plan to replace the unwanted routine.

Think about what you will do if the trigger reoccurs.

Habits get out of control in a hot state

Some habits are triggered or accompanied by strong emotions. When changing this variety of habits there is a pitfall.

Those who know the pitfall can avoid falling victim to it.

The concept of the hot and cold state of mind

One calls the emotionally charged state hot and the emotionally poor state cold.

We almost always change bad habits in a cold state.

We completely ignore the hot state, because if we are emotionally relaxed, we cannot put ourselves in an emotionally charged state.

We should plan for the hot state so as not to relapse

We must develop tactics in the cold state that control us in the hot state.

There are two possibilities:

  • In the long run, the cold state can be strengthened by training (for example meditation) and the hot state can be weakened.
  • In the short term, the hot self can be prevented from carrying out the unwanted behavior with the help of tactics.

A practical example

For example, if someone wants to quit smoking, he could make sure that

  • There are no lighters in the apartment (and in the car).
  • You could always put the coins you need to buy cigarettes in a piggy bank immediately.
  • Could ask friends and colleagues for support.

9 tips for changing habits

#1 | Trust is good, control is better

This old wisdom also applies to self-imposed behavioral changes.

The optimal strategy depends on your personality.

It depends on how you react to expectations.

The following classification is taken from the book Better Than Before (*) by Gretchen Rubin.

It divides people into four categories:

  • People who are good at fulfilling other people’s expectations.
  • People who are good at meeting their own expectations
  • People who are good at meeting all kinds of expectations
  • Rebels who are basically allergic to expectations

Depending on which group you belong to, you should choose either external or internal controls.

If you are a rebel, you should avoid controls altogether.

External control bodies

Friends or family members are possible external control bodies.

Tell them what you have in mind and tell them how they can help you.

Internal Control Instances

Monitoring is good internal control. Monitoring ensures that you become aware of important information about your progress.

Without monitoring, this information would easily be overlooked or even (unconsciously) ignored. Monitoring prevents self-deception.

Monitoring can be done in different ways:

  • Weighing and measuring
  • Nutrition diary
  • Sportsmen’s diary

Who renounces monitoring, because he believes to have everything under control, commits definitely an error

Studies have shown that we people can eat 20% more without any problems without noticing it. [s] Other activities are probably similar.

We also have selective attention, which means we always overlook something.

#2 | Optimize the quality of your experience

Scientific studies have shown that our memories of past sensations are fragmentary but predictable:

In retrospect, we no longer remember our sensations during the entire event, but only the maximum intensity and the intensity at the very end of the event. [s]

This applies to all kinds of events, be it a visit to the dentist, a transatlantic flight, a visit to the parents-in-law or a marathon.

The maximum intensity of the sensation is usually not influenced. In many cases, however, the sensation at the end of the event can be consciously shaped.

I always choose my jogging routes so that the last minutes are as pleasant as possible (downhill, slow speed, evening sun, etc.). So the whole run remains as positive as possible in my memory. This probably helps me to motivate myself for my future runs.

#3 | Choose the most reliable trigger possible

The more difficult a new habit, the more you benefit from good triggers.

Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of the book Switch (*), report that the probability of becoming active increases by 300% with the appropriate triggers.

Why triggers are so effective

Without any trigger, you have to consciously decide to become active every time. So every time you have the chance to postpone or find a reason why right now is a good moment for an exception.

But if you use a trigger, then the decision to go through with it was made in advance.

It is important that the trigger is reliable

If, for example, you only do sports when your best friend also goes to sports, you will probably no longer go to sports when your friend is ill or no longer goes to sports at all.

Ideally, new habits should be linked to a time of day or a day of the week.

#4 | Optimize your timing

You’ve probably noticed that willpower is like a muscle. Like a real muscle, willpower also depends on blood sugar levels and tires during the day.

In the morning after breakfast, the willpower is strongest. What we cannot motivate ourselves for in the morning, we will certainly not be able to do later in the day.

Since young habits are still strongly dependent on willpower, it makes sense to put these on the early morning if possible.

If this is not possible in time, strong triggers and control instances must compensate for the weaker willpower at a later hour.

How to Change the Habit You Feel Bad About (4 Steps) - silver bell alarm clock

#5 | Optimize your mindset

Situations, people and things we are often confronted with becoming more pleasant over time. This fact is also known as the mere-exposure effect.

If you are uncomfortable with new activity at the beginning, you can be sure that the negative feelings will weaken or even disappear with time.

This should be especially helpful when you are changing your diet. You are planning a diet, but you don’t like vegetables? Wait a few days.

Maybe that’s where the expression comes from, that something needs getting used to. My first coffee without sugar was also such a case. But already after a few days, I felt that coffee without sugar was quite normal.

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#6 | Don't let any interruptions happen

At the very beginning, it is most important to form the habit. Performance is secondary.

It, therefore, makes more sense to jog only 10 minutes every 2nd day than to spend two hours only twice a month. This applies at least to habits that should be maintained for as long as possible.

I would recommend that you make it your top priority not to miss an appointment.

Instead, you should be less strict with yourself about what you expect from your performance.

#7 Protect your habits with if... then... plans

In particular, young habits that compete with old (but undesirable) habits must be protected.

It makes sense not only to know external traps and obstacles, but also one’s own excuses, and to have an “if… then…”Β  plan ready for the worst-case scenario.

#8 | Optimize the reward

External (extrinsic) rewards work, but they are not optimal. Intrinsic motivation is better.

If possible, always use intrinsic rewards.

With extrinsic rewards, you are dependent on the reward. If you reward yourself with ice cream after the sport, you will have problems when you are on holiday or moving to another place where there is no suitable ice cream parlor.

#9 | Make sure you know why you want to change a habit

Even with the right strategy, it is not easy to change habits. If you don’t believe that, think about which people in your environment have managed to change a habit permanently.

We humans like to believe that we can do such things better than our fellow human beings, but this is an illusion.

So think carefully about what you want to change and above all why you want to change this habit.

Those who simply change something will only create an unpleasant experience and will be less motivated to tackle change in the future.

Ask yourself this question:

  • Do I want to change this habit because it makes my life better or easier?
  • Or do I just want to change it to please other people or to build a certain image?

Gretchen Rubin sums it up well:

The biggest waste of time is doing something good that doesn't have to be done at all. (Gretchen Rubin)Click To Tweet

Finally, there is the most important tip: Just start! You’re very motivated right now, otherwise, you wouldn’t have read the article this far. So start now! I don’t want to hear any sayings like “From tomorrow on I’ll start right through”. No, now! I don’t accept excuses.

Start now and today to set better habits! πŸ™‚

Changing habits books

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