How to Change Habits?
Can a routine be transformed with a twist? Modify behavior by creating a new list! Check out this article with tips to persist!
As from the previous articles we’ve already known, we establish habits through the psycologial process called habit loop. The habit loop has 3 or four stages, depending on the depth, we immerse in the subject, but essentially both are the same which involves a cue that triggers an action that leads to a reward.
Although, changing habits or staying on track with our new lifestyle commonly attribute,d to willpower in reality it has not much to do with that. Some would go as far as questioning the whole existence of willpower and insist that those who muster superhuman level of focus do nothing special, except exploiting the habit loop to their advantage.
How to change habits easily?
The best news is, that we can all tap into the power of habits, unlocking the possibility to superhuman conscientiousness.
The easiest and quickest method to break any habit is, to eliminate the cue that could trigger the action so there is nothing that could drive us to reward.
For example, if on our way home, there is sign that entices us to stop to buy something there, simply changing the route home would stop us doing it so.
Similarly, if a cake on the countertop begs us to have a slice from it every time we pass by, putting the thing away or simply covering it, could work wonders.
Sure, if we put the cake in the cupboard then suddenly we can start using things from the cupboard for no reason whatsoever or on our alternative route, we stop at another shop, our habit cracking may seem unsuccessful. In reality though, while the old habit hasn’t been triggered hence broken, we created a brand new one that reward is as undesirable as the previous one, we wanted to avoid.
It’s easy to create new habits if it drives instant gratifications.
When we are trying to avoid old habits, we have to make sure of the new ones aren’t worse than the ones they are replacing. Therefore, when devising plans for changing habits, don’t just dive into it mindlessly but try to foresee the consequences of the new actions too.
Let’s say someone is trying to quit smoking and thinking about soothing the rage with sucking on lollipops. This seems like a harmless enough thing, after all we’ve been doing it since our childhood anyway. Until we realize the damage sugar is capable to wreck on our body. Our knowledge, especially when we start out in something, is far from infinite, yet our actions can be only as good as the information, they were based upon. Consequently, there will always be occasions when we overlook something that requires altering our actions.
We need to accept that failures are part of the learning process.
We take our mistakes, analyze them, learn from them then adjust our strategies so the next time we face similar situations, our response will be more adequate. Although, properly analyzing situations and correctly identifying cues are not always straightforward, but still, this is the quickest, easiest and most effective way of changing habits. Without cue, there is no action to be triggered that could drive us to rewards.
What are our needs?
Unfortunately, there are situations where changing the cue is not an option. After all, we all take breaks, there may not be another way home and there is only so many place to hide a cake.
If eliminating cues isn’t an option, change the reward.
Rewards are a bit tricky subject because rewards are the satisfaction of our needs and our needs are not always clear to us.
To get the basics covered, let’s get acquainted with the late American psychologist, Abraham Maslow hierarchy of needs. Similarly to the lizard brain proposition, we referred to before, his work too, is academically contested but widely referred to and helps us understand the basic concepts of the human behavior.
According to Maslov hierarchy of needs, there are five basic categories that dictates an individual’s behavior.
The needs are commonly presented in a pyramid form as a visual representation of the theory signaling that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher-level needs.
What’s really interesting for us, is not the structure itself (which tend to overlap, hence the cause of academic scrutiny) but the needs themselves, because all our actions are motivated to satisfy one of those needs.
Although eating seems to be strictly assigned to the physiological category because of our need of food itself, the act of eating is used for a lot more than just stuffing our body with nutrition, making the identification of the cause of our actions harder than it should be.
What is hunger?
Primarily, we use eating to nourish our body. Unfortunately, we can’t even trust our senses here because our body has not been developed to live off on refined food processed if factories that’s available all year around. Not the least hunger has very little to do with how much energy our body has left to function properly.
We are hungry, simply because our stomach increases hormone production called ghrelin 20 -30 minutes before each regular meal in a bid to prepare the rest of the body for it and let us know that now it is the time to put some food there too. As the increase of ghrelin level in our body signals hunger, the decrease stops us feeling hungry.
Food, high in protein lowers ghrelin level more than food high in fat or refined carbs but ghrelin may also decrease when we are hydrated and increase when dehydrated.
When we change our meal schedule, our stomach adapts to it too. This is why people on intermittent fasting get hungry at the beginning but as their body adapts, they don’t feel more inconvenience than anybody else 30 minutes before each meal.
It’s important to understand how hunger works because then we can prepare for it and bring our actions under our control. If we physically feel hungry between regular meals, it’s probably because we haven’t had enough protein with our last meal or it’s because we are 30 minutes away from our next meal.
In the latter case, a jug of water could get us through the worst while in the previous scenario a better meal plan would solve our problems on the long run. It’s worth to mention here that snacking is a controversial concept because a healthy adult doesn’t need extra calories between regular meal times, moreover it runs the risk of developing bad eating habits.
Although if we like to time our daily fruit or nuts intake between meals, eating doesn’t make us sloppy or less productive and that fits into our daily calorie limit then there is no one out there to stop us having some healthy snacks.
How hungry our needs can be?
- Most snacking though happens not because we are physically hungry but because we use the act of eating for something else, such as coping with stress. If anyone has ever wondered why some athletes chew gum, it’s because this very reason. Chewing gum alleviates negative mood and reduces cortisol during acute laboratory psychological stress.
- We can use food to showcase our love and affections towards others. Being on the receiving end and refusing such care and attention can be deeply hurtful to people who can’t understand our point of view. With some patience and properly detailed directions, even grandmothers can adapt to new diets though.
- We also use the act of eating to socialize. We go out with friends, chat coworkers over coffee and a slice of cake, not because we are hungry but because we use the occasion of eating to fulfill our needs for social interaction.
- We may be just eating because we are bored or more often to procrastinate. It’s interesting to note that procrastination is part of the same fight or flight reflexes that make us play dead when everything else is failed. Similarly, when we suddenly get overwhelmed with tasks, our brain just shuts down and awaits for the end of the storm. While eating and binge watching series seems like a much more enticing solution during these times, breaking up the tasks, over some calorie free drink like a tea or coffee, into smaller chunks, generally helps us solve the deadlock quicker.
We use the occasion of eating to satisfy all of our needs basically, so identifying which one is crucial to allow us to reward ourselves correctly.
Let’s say when we take a break, we go to have a coffee and with that, a piece of cake while chatting away with our favorite coworker. Which of our need are we satisfied, is crucial to a correct response.
Are we really hungry or having a cake is just an excuse to meet someone?
- If we are really hungry then a cake isn’t the best answer to that. Change the meal plan so we have enough protein from the morning to last until lunch or from lunch to dinner.
- If we are just there to satisfy our need for social interaction then going for a walk instead of sitting down for a drink and cake should do it just as well.
Is that all about changing habits?
The third option to break habits is to change the action itself, like simply stop eating that piece of cake once we’ve started it, which is where most of us fails. Our habits are driven by our unconscious and as we’ve seen from the previous articles, we have very limited power of overcoming it. We may be able to wrestle away a win once or twice in a huge battle, but once we are in a vulnerable state e.g., we are tired, hungry, or just upset, we simply are not able to go into mental fight with ourselves.
So to summarize, changing habits can happen either by changing the cue that triggers action and leads to reward or identifying the reward and swapping it with something with a more desirable one.