Habits – Are They Controlling You? Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog I outlined what a habit is, why it’s so powerful, and the problems they can represent when making a lifestyle change. If you didn’t read that yet, go check it out or the below won’t make a whole lot of sense! Assuming you’ve read it already, we can crack on…

You cannot simply ignore habits and hope they go away because they won’t.

As I mentioned last week, they are hard-wired into your brain – they’re physically and literally a part of you – and so you can’t just hope they stop being there because that won’t happen any time soon. Think of the ex-smoker who suddenly finds themselves with a cigarette the moment they get drunk in the pub they used to frequent.

This means you have a few different options available to you – one for each step of the habit process, which is itself best written as cue-routine-reward. Before we look at these, though, it’s a good idea to mention an overriding principle: Mindfulness. Regardless of the method you choose you need to exert some amount of mindfulness to actually implement it. You need the presence of mind to stop yourself before engaging in habitual behaviour or to intentionally do something else prior to the habit being instigated (meaning anticipating your behaviour ahead of time). You need to be paying attention in short, and that can be harder to do than you’d think.

A simple way to do this when the habit related to food choice is to ask yourself “Do I really want this?” before consuming ANYTHING. The answer is allowed to be yes, of course, but the question needs to be asked. For some other things, you may need to fake it ‘til you make it and just force yourself to do things. The critical thing is, however, a kind of self-monitoring and awareness that will not come naturally

This is, in fact, one reason why food tracking – not necessarily calorie or macronutrient tracking, but food logging – is so effective. If you have to write down everything you eat before you eat it, you are less likely to mindlessly eat.

But on with the tips:

First – know and remove the cue.

A habitual routine is initiated by the experience of a cue. You see, feel, hear, do or otherwise are aware (consciously or not) of a context in which a habit usually occurs, then you go through with the habit. You might finish a meal, get rid of your email inbox, or just arrive home, and you’ll start doing something that ends in a desired reward – usually without realising.

One of the most common cues, however, is incentive salience – literally seeing the reward itself. Snacks, drinks, baked goods, alcohol and other ‘indulgences’ left in plain sight are consumed with far greater frequency, so be sure to shape your food environment accordingly (More about this in this episode of The Ditch the Diet Podcast). If you can remove the cue itself, then this is by far the easiest way to stop going through with a habit in the first place.

Next – Understand and interrupt your routines

The problem with habits isn’t that they exist but that you’ll complete them without realising, and you can’t be mindful ALL of the time – it’s impossible. Once you know your routine, however, you can interrupt it by again shaping your environment or your intentional actions.

If, for example, you tend to have a dessert after a savoury meal and you want to break this habit, you could instead decide that after eating a meal you’ll do a lap of your block/estate. Or, you could brush your teeth, or play with the dog for 10 minutes – whatever it is you want to do. This requires conscious effort, but it blocks the routine in its tracks; you aren’t resisting the reward, you’re preventing the routine ever starting.

Another way you could do this would be to make the rewarding thing harder to get. If you always go to the vending machine at work on your break, leave your money in the car. That means that yes, you COULD go to the vending machine, but now you have to go all the way into the car park first – that gives you the chance to use mindfulness and conscious thought, and choose whether you really want to grab a snack today.

Or, as noted already, you could write down with a pen and paper everything you eat.

Again, you’re more than welcome to decide you do want it, but it’s important to be in control of that choice.

Finally, you can tackle the reward.

This is a little harder to do because it’s not always immediately obvious what the reward is. If you get a chocolate bar on your work break, for example, is it the chocolate that you want?

Is it the break?

The walk?

The conversation with colleagues

The sunlight?

The escape from a messy desk?

The silence?

If you can work out what it is you get from that habit routine, then you can come up with alternative methods for getting it. If it’s the conversation around the vending machine and the walk, could you walk over to someone’s desk and chat? Maybe set an alarm to go and do it at the time of day you tend to find yourself snacking.

If it’s the break from work or the messy desk, is this the right workplace environment…or even job for you? This kind of self-exploration may turn out far bigger conundrums than you think when you first start working out how to avoid the 10 am Snickers, but these are questions you may need to ask yourself eventually.

Overall, the way to tackle habits is to either find a more productive reward, engage in a more productive routine after the initial cue so you can remove the unproductive habit, or get rid of the cue. All of these will take time, patience, and the understanding that you will not get it right the first time, but they are all powerful, important steps to take to control your life.

As a first step, think of three habits you’d like to break right now, then map them out.

What’s the cue? What context, situation or experience always precedes the habit routine (this might even be something in your head!). Could this be avoided?

What’s the routine? Work out every single step and think of a way you could put a stop in the middle to allow you to think – or work out if the whole thing could be avoided altogether by intentionally doing something else when you get the cue!

And finally, what’s the reward? What are you REALLY getting out of it? Could you get that same thing from something more useful or in line with your goals?

If you can work out how to change a negative habit to a positive one, or simply get rid of a bad habit altogether by reframing the cue, then you’re not just going to find success far easier.

It’ll almost happen by accident.

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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