But getting rid of bad habits is hard work. If you ever tried it, you probably already know that. You start out with a lot of motivation but after a week or so you quit. Bad habits are build over years and years. Do not expect to get rid of them within twentyone days. It takes a bit more than that.
The truth is: At least 70% of the time you are not consciously aware of your choices. To save precious energy your brain relies on routines and habits. If you always buy cigarettes together with your groceries you will automatically crave them while shopping. It´s ingrained in your brain to form routines.
Routines can be learned consciously. It´s like learning to ride a bike. It took a few weeks to learn it. Falling down and getting up again. It took all of your focus to not fall over. But a few months in it already was way easier. Today you may even be able to talk on your phone or eat while riding a bike.
Riding a bike demands less focus because it became a habit to watch the traffic and the bike at the same time. Your subconscious mind adapted. You don´t even have to think about it, you just do it.
That´s how you go through your day: you don´t think about how to get home from work or school because you walked the route a thousand times. You don´t have to think about brushing your teeth in the morning because you do it every day. You don´t have to think about putting on a pyjama for the night because you do it every night.
That´s the power of habit. Build a healthy routine and you can rely on it even in stressful situations. Build unhealthy habits and you will fail the second you need to focus on something else but the habit.
Our brain does not prefer good habits over bad habits. It just creates a routine out of the things you do often. There is no judgment whether or not that habit is good for you.
Your brain either wants to protect you or make you feel good by releasing dopamine. And both of those reactions need a trigger.
A routine starts with a trigger as well. Getting up in the morning is the trigger for brushing your teeth. Leaving work or school is the trigger for going to the gym. Meeting your friends is the trigger for drinking a beer. Drinking a cup of coffee is the trigger for smoking a cigarette. Feeling stressed is the trigger for eating cookies.
And now think about how the reaction to the trigger makes you feel:
Brushing your teeth releases dopamine because your mouth now feels clean.
Going to the gym and working out releases dopamine. You feel energized.
Drinking a beer with your friends makes you calm and helps you to cope with stress.
Smoking a cigarette or eating cookies will release dopamine, making you feel good for a short while.
Trigger – Action – Reward.
Every habit – good and bad – is based on this loop. This is great news, fellow superhero, because you can modify the habit so the trigger makes you do an action that is healthy for you!
The plan is to change the Action but use the same trigger. Choose a bad habit you want to get rid of, smoking is a great example.
Now identify the trigger. Let´s say you are smoking in the morning immediately after waking up, during your lunch break before you get back to work and as soon as you are back home. Those are three triggers to work with.
You can start with only one trigger or you can try to change all three triggers at the same time. It is completely up to you what works best for your situation.
Remember that the goal is to reap the reward without the unhealthy action in between. So, instead of just quitting choose an alternative action instead.
If you have been smoking a cigarette first thing in the morning, roll out of bed and work out for fifteen minutes instead. Do Jumping Jacks, Squats, Mountain Climbers, Push Ups and Crunches until you are sweating. Exercise releases dopamine and you get the reward without smoking.
If you have been smoking during your lunch break before you get back to work try to implement a different habit instead. Drink a diet coke or browse your social media for instant gratification. While those to habits are not great they are still healthier for you than smoking. One step at a time. If you are fine with being a bit sweaty you can exercise again, of course.
If you have been smoking as soon as you return from work use this trigger for a healthier habit. Take a cold shower to clean your body from the sweat and stress. Meditate for ten minutes to calm your mind. Exercise again, if you want to. Watch some funny videos on YouTube.
Bottom line: You need to find a healthier way to get the reward. Quitting altogether will not work as long as you are not getting your dopamine from a different (healthier) source.
Those new habits will take a while to manifest themselves. One month is a good starting point but in my opinion it takes AT LEAST six weeks to implement a new habit. It takes time to become a superhero.
If it´s possible try to only change one habit at a time. Give yourself two months to make it part of your routine before you start working on the next habit. That´s six new habits a year. Make those habits exercise, eating more fruit, drinking more water, reading more books, taking cold showers and dressing well and you will be a new person within a year (you can choose different habits, of course, those are just my personal recommendation).
A year is not that long if you think about it. Do you remember the last summer? Now think about the next summer and all the great, new habits you will have implemented into your life until then.
Stay strong, fellow superhero!