8 tips on how to replace a bad habit with a good one!

Yesterday I talked about pattern breaking and how it can look and work. I am doing a little spin off on that topic today, as I find the brain and its functions and impact on us super interesting and exciting. Since I work in coaching a wide variety of people, it makes a lot of sense to me to find out more about how habits are formed, how they become automatic and what it takes to break them.

I have recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, interesting cases and reflections are addressed in the book, as well as concrete explanations how habits (behaviors) were changed and what effect they had. Reading tips!

A Swedish brain scientist whose books I have several of is Katarina Gospic. Incredibly competent woman who in a very educational way explains the role of the brain, the brain and the gut, the brain and leadership etc. Highly recommend reading her books if you are curious about the brain, without having to read details and technical language that makes you more confused than wise. My second reading tip!

So how do our habitual patterns emerge
We can have a goal-oriented behavior that can also turn into a habitual pattern. What we will react to is a type of signal (situation, time, environment (place), words). The signal leads to a behavior which in turn gives us a reward. If we repeat this procedure enough times, the brain will turn the targeted behavior into a habit, to save energy. It wants to save brain power. This is because we were originally humans who needed to use our cognitive and physical resources wisely to survive. So while we have developed society at a rapid pace, our brains have not kept up with that pace. It makes sure to save brain power by, among other things. a identify repeated behaviors as habits.

Signal àbehavior à reward x many repetitions =

Once a habit has been formed, several different processes take place in our bodies when we receive the signal, which is triggered whether or not we receive our reward. So there are not only cognitive processes, but also physiological ones. Here is an example, “eating sweets as a Friday treat”. Friday afternoon and you are on your way home from work. The snuggle factor started to creep up on you at lunch. You see your comfy sofa, warm candles and the sound of a good movie in front of you. You can buy the obligatory sweets in the supermarket near where you live. No Friday night without sweets.

If this becomes a habit, your body will give physical reactions to the candy as soon as you start thinking about the Friday night snack. Your body will release stomach acid and create a craving for the candy, just from the thought of a Friday treat. You will also buy/eat your candy automatically, without thinking about whether you really want it that Friday or whether it has become a condition (a habit) associated with the Friday treat.

A very well-known and historical experiment in this regard is Pavlov’s dogs.

Strategy for breaking a habit
If you feel you need to change or break a habit, the following points are a recommendation to look at. Let’s take the example of the Friday candy above and say that you want to replace that habit with not eating candy.

  • Identify routine

Find out what the habit is that you want to change, so that you make it conscious. Here’s how to stop eating sweets as a Friday treat.

  • Identify the trigger
    Identify the signal for the behavior. When we are constantly taking in so much information from the world around us, many times the obvious in front of us is what we miss. Therefore, you may need to back out a bit, take some helicopter perspective and start studying your habits and patterns, and most importantly, what happens right before you do them? In this example, the trigger (signal) is the thought of Friday fun.
  • Experiment with the reward
    Once you have the first two points in place, it’s time to start experimenting and find out what the actual reasons are for buying and eating the candy. What is the actual reward? What is the reason why you want to eat sweets. Is it because you feel depressed being alone on Friday nights and the candy becomes a “good” comfort for the movie? Or is it that you eat because your partner also eats? Or are you actually hungry again after dinner when you are awake later than usual? Or is it a relaxing way to munch on sweets on the sofa?

Rewards satisfy a need and therefore have a lot of power. But we don’t always know what need is driving our behavior. It is important to spend time identifying and experimenting with your needs, which are expressed in different habits. Habits that give you different rewards.

You can try replacing the candy with a vegetable dip, for example. Try and eat it and reflect on how you feel afterwards. If it feels ok, maybe it’s more about the fact that it’s good to eat something with the movie, and not the candy itself that matters.

The same applies if you switch and eat something else or nothing else with your partner. Is it perhaps the community that is more important, being able to cuddle together on the sofa. If the craving for sweets is not there, then perhaps it was the community that was really in demand. If you feel like eating something (hungry), try the above example of replacing the candy with something healthier and see how your body reacts.

So it’s about finding out what the underlying need really is and what has slipped in as a bad habit on the way to getting rewards. Once you identify it, you can more easily work on a plan (next point) to change your unwanted habit. For example for the above example, choose healthy snacks for the Friday night movie, ask your partner for healthier options or just hang out, you’re already full after dinner.

You can also write down the status of how you feel after making other conscious choices when you would otherwise have chosen the bad habit. Do this first immediately after trying a new habit (write down four to five words of what you are thinking/feeling at the time), after about fifteen minutes check your state against the words. Is it the same condition, has anything changed?

If you feel satisfied, you have probably found the need and are getting the right reward for what you really want. If not, keep experimenting until you get it right.

Have a plan –
If you want to succeed, you also need to be aware of what can cause you to fail. The more clearly you articulate in writing and thought how you intend to respond to temptations, questions about the change, etc., the more likely you are to overcome the obstacles without falling over too many times (or even none at all). And every time you manage to resist the impulse to buy the Friday candy, it will get easier and easier. The highway is slowly turning into a mossy road (see below paragraph) and in the long run maybe forgotten?!

Set a good plan
I have heard myself and others many times talking about “Now…now I’m going to change my bad habit of…”. It’s a bit like the human invasion of gyms in January. As an instructor, I have stopped being surprised after so many years in the business. But I still find it just as interesting and fascinating. At the same time, it’s just as sad that people don’t have the energy to keep up a good habit that makes such a difference (more on that tomorrow).

So what is the difference between the times I succeed and the times I fail? I think it is because I am prepared. I have thought through, why do I want this? The intention is clear and I know where I want to go and how it will look, sound and feel when I change my habit. It becomes a strong anchor (there will be a post about anchoring in two posts ahead) to the new and also a drive to want to succeed. I have made myself a good plan from the points below.

  • Preparation – There is research showing that stress and bad conditions lead to negative habits. So try to reduce stress and put yourself in a good state of mind (I’ll talk more about how to consciously do this in tomorrow’s post on anchoring). So before you start an exchange of a bad habit, make sure you are present and ready to deal with the ups and downs mentally.
  • Reasonable goals
    If the reward in the brain is to be effective, you also need to set reasonable goals. If you start training, your goal may not be to lift 100 kg after two months. You won’t get as many positive rewards, and you’re more likely to stop exercising. If, on the other hand, you decide to increase x number of reasonable kilos per month based on your starting weight, and perhaps have 100 kg as a long-term goal, then you will get much more kick back every time you reach your interim goals. Same thing if you set out to go from zero to four training sessions a week. It will most likely work for a few weeks, and then you won’t be able to keep it up. The rewards diminish and you stop exercising instead of settling for twice a week. Start at a moderate dose, make it a habit and then increase the dose if you wish.
  • Positive reward signals – Make sure you can measure your goals and milestones. Make sure you give yourself a good reward for achieving them. Give yourself positive feedback. When things are not going well or feel heavy, be kind to yourself. You are in the middle of a process of change, it is a bumpy road, but have faith that you will get there.
  • Reward progress, not failure
    Also be careful not to reward yourself when it goes the other way. To be clear to the brain when to reward and when not to reward. It retains the power of the reward better.

The brain’s connections – highway or dirt road?
In her book ‘The Social Brain’, Katarina Gospic describes the brain’s connections as highways and mossy paths. The connections we often use are highways and those connections are fast and do not require much brain power (habits). So if we want to change a bad habit, we should try to transform the links from a highway to a really boggy path, let it grow again. Be aware, however, that if you start cheating on your new habit or falling back into the old one too often, you’ll be trampling the path until it becomes a highway again.

So when the urge or temptation comes, which it does more strongly at first than after a while, it’s important to have a plan to resist it, and to reward yourself for every step forward. Don’t beat yourself up for falling, instead pay attention to what caused it and reward yourself only when you stay on the new habit’s path. Otherwise, the reward effect won’t be as strong after a while if you reward yourself both when you succeed and “fail” (I’m torn on the word fail there by “”).

Be kind to yourself
Think positive and be kind to yourself. When you decide to break/change a habit, be your best coach. There will be times when it is challenging and at some point you may fall into the old habit. Let it be ok, instead of whipping you, see if you can identify the reason(s) why you fell there and be aware of it if (when) it reappears.

You may think that you are your best friend, but would you shit all over your best friend if they explained that they were struggling with a change and encountered some obstacles? No, I didn’t think so. So be your best friend when you talk to yourself.

Do you have a habit you want to change?

Have fun!


Ps. Tomorrow, I will continue to dig into my brain, but in the area of the brain and movement. So another one of my favorite areas.



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