According to the dictionary, a habit is “an action, attitude or characteristic that has become natural through frequent and constant repetition; something that is often only performed mechanically or unconsciously”. Surely you too have tried to get rid of a habit? The classics are giving up smoking, doing more sport instead of sitting on the couch, not watching so much TV and above all not eating the bag of crisps next to it. But it’s kind of hard. There are studies that have found out that about 70% of the test persons fell back into old behaviour patterns after a short or long period of time.
The reason why it is so difficult to change is that the same mechanisms can also lead to very helpful routines, i.e. to “abilities acquired through longer experience to carry out a certain activity very safely, quickly and confidently”. A fact that is of great importance for any kind of learning, be it professional or private, and has therefore been induced in this way in the course of evolution. So how to deal with it?
How habits and routines develop
Children try out and imitate, over and over again, and even failures do not deter them. They want to be able to do it. And when they have learned a skill, e.g. to walk on two legs without falling over or to wash glasses carefully like their parents, they are immensely happy about it. Serotonin and dopamine are released and this positive experience, strengthened by numerous repetitions, together with the associated emotion, is engraved in the developmentally oldest part of our brain, the lymbic system. Once it has arrived there and formed a habit, it needs neither thought nor emotion to be repeated. It runs as if by itself. And we often only notice how much something has become a habit when someone points it out to us.
The story of the steak
Once upon a time there was a woman who wanted to fix a steak for her visitor. But before she placed the steak in the pan, she carefully sliced it in half. “Why do you do that?” the visitor asked. “Because my mother always did it that way.” But why, the woman didn’t know either. Since the mother was still alive, she could be asked. “I had a very small pan back then and we could often only afford one steak, so I used to cut it first so one piece would fit in the pan and so we would have the feeling of having 2 steaks.” Here it becomes clear that some things that once had a meaning may have lost that meaning due to a changed context.
The stimulus-response principle
Studies have shown that the average person spends about half of the time between getting up and going to sleep in “autopilot”, i.e. in stimulus-response mode. Our brain is very keen on habits because they save a lot of energy. This is often a good thing, e.g. when I immediately hit the brakes in traffic after my eyes perceive a movement on the side of the road. But if every evening the stimulus of finally being at home is met with the reaction of drinking a bottle of red wine, then this behaviour, originally rewarded with relaxation, becomes ruinous in the long run. However, since action sequences that have arrived in the subconscious are so practical for our brain, they can only be removed again if we succeed in breaking the stimulus-reaction principle where it is harmful.
„Habits and routines should be questioned from time to time to see if they are still coherent, i.e. are they helping me or hindering me?
Changing harmful habits, establishing helpful routines
The first starting point for switching off the autopilot: I can only change what I am really aware of. But that alone is not enough. The value of routines is based on the fact that what we are used to gives us security. As research shows and most of us have already experienced, the mere will to do something differently from today onwards usually does not bring much. As explained above, habits are located in the lymbic system. Thinking and will are located in the neocortex, i.e. somewhere else entirely. This means that while I try to change my behaviour, the old behavioural programme is still active and so I fall back into old patterns more easily. I need my determination and my will to establish other, new, better routines that increasingly replace the old programme. This usually takes more stubborn persistence than previously storing away the harmful habit.
Where to tackle?
- The stimulus – Can I avoid the triggering stimulus? If I always eat too much in stressful situations, how can I get away from the stressful situations and ensure that they no longer occur or only occur rarely?
- On the reaction – can I adopt other alternative reactions? Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer recommends a concrete “if-then plan”: “Whenever I get a craving for sweets, I make myself a cup of tea”. In other words, one consciously opposes an automatism with another automatism, with the aim of overwriting the original habit. Replace the harmful habit with a helpful routine.
- On the reward – what could also be a reward for me? Instead of rewarding myself with chocolate bars as usual, I call a dear friend and get positive feedback. New habits only stick if they feel good.
Which behaviour do you want to change first? Are you passionate about your goal without any ifs, ands or buts? Commitment and then “just do it“.
Good luck with the implementation
With best regards
Yours, Harriet Kretschmar