Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become actions. Watch your actions. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character.
Dr Judson Brewer
Changing your life is not about completely transforming everything you do. In fact (I know from personal experience) this leads to failure and gets you back to square one with no changes in sight!
What I have learnt though, it is about building a positive system of habits. They may be small behaviour changes but when they are combined, deliver significant and lasting results.
There has been a lot of research and evidence-based techniques on the power of cultivating habits to support you to change ingrained habits and behaviour patterns. By making small positive changes step by step, these are then a catalyst for major changes in your life.
What we do know is that you form habits with repetition and 21 days has been bandied about as the minimum time you need to turn a behaviour into a habit. Clearly, habits need to be repetitious but without the motivation for the desired outcome, repetition alone will not cut it.
Willpower will also not help you make the desired changes either. In terms of neuroscience, willpower is a function of the newer areas of your brain, but addictive behaviours and habits are in the older areas that aren’t amenable to logic and willpower.
In this article I am going to discuss powerful strategies and techniques taken from two books written by well-known experts in this field. These techniques work!
The books are Unwinding Anxiety by Dr Judson Brewer (Dr Jud), an internationally recognised psychiatrist focusing on addiction at Brown’s University Medical School, USA, and Atomic Habits by James Clear, author and researcher into habits.
To really change habits, you have to make the older parts of the brain work for you. According to Dr Jud, there are three steps in the process- noticing your behaviour, investigating why you’re engaging in it, and then substituting it with a bigger, better option.
Here are 8 powerful techniques to embed positive habits into your life:
1. Practise mindfulness
By practising mindfulness, you can notice what’s happening in the older parts of your brain and recognize a habit loop when it’s happening. Mindfulness helps you get curious about why you are doing this and what triggered the behaviour.
Stepping away from the habit loop frees up the newer parts of the brain to do what they are good at, making rational and logical decisions. You can then ask yourself what am I really getting out of this? This is when you can find a bigger, better option.
Addiction and obsessive thought patterns are controlled by our instinctive survival brains (amygdala) and not our rational brains (pre-frontal cortex). By using mindfulness techniques, we can rewire our survival brains and rid us of anxiety and other obsessive habits and addictions.
Bringing mindfulness awareness and curiosity to what is happening, unhooks us from being on autopilot. When we bring some mindfulness to what we are doing, we have the chance to assess what the real rewards are in the present moment and not react automatically and mindlessly.
For example, a person who smokes, normally has a default mode of automatically reaching for a cigarette to make them feel better. The feel-good hormone dopamine also kicks in with the pleasurable anticipation of having that cigarette.
By practising mindfulness, the idea is to be completely in the present and when you go to have that cigarette you ask yourself what you are getting out of this, what the cigarette actually tastes like.
Focusing mindfully on the actual experience will show you that the “rewarding” behaviour is not that enjoyable in the moment. Here you are observing the reality of the situation and in fact discovering the enjoyment was not even there in the first place.
Worry is an addiction in itself, feeds our anxiety and affects our wellbeing. If your brain learns that worrying provides temporary relief from the negative emotions you feel then whenever you are anxious your brain will trigger worry. This vicious cycle becomes a compulsive habit which just serves you to be more anxious.
Worrying provides a temporary escape from difficult emotions. Worrying is appealing, because it seems like you are working toward a solution but in fact you are just going round and round in circles.
Worrying distracts you from the difficult emotions you are feeling and in fact feels more rewarding to your brain than the original emotion did.
According to Dr Jud, the first step in understanding your own worry and anxiety is to map your own habit loops. What kinds of situations trigger anxiety or other difficult feelings? Write down as many habit loops as you can think. It will help you get a greater understanding of your motivations and triggers.
The main goal here is to just be aware of your habit loops, not try and fix them. Habits are deeply ingrained in our brains. In order to change them, you will also have to change how you think about them.
When we engage in obsessive worrying and destructive habit loops, we are generally on autopilot and are not aware of our thought processes. Whenever we are ruminating or worrying, we switch on the same part of the brain where we crave something we are addicted to.
2. Be kind to yourself and be curious
As well as practising mindfulness to get out of the habit loop, be kind to yourself and be curious. This is not the time for the inner critic to take charge. Being self-critical while in these habit loops only exacerbates the cycle.
Mindfulness practice, whether it be formal or informal, can help you develop a greater understanding of your thought patterns, behaviours and triggers and why you do what you do. It can help you build the resilience and presence we all need in this chaotic world.
One of the most popular habit researchers, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits has many strategies on the power of small gains and how they can accumulate to significant changes of behaviour in your life.
James’s personal story is an interesting one. When he was in high school, a loose bat smashed into his face. He ended up with a broken nose, dangerous brain swellings and dislocated eyes. His recovery was long and slow but it was through small steps, he developed good habits, eventually becoming one of 33 players for the All-American Academic team.
The lessons in his book include an analysis of how we perform habits. When it comes to habits, James suggests that environment is the determiner that shapes human behaviour. Each time we perform a habit we follow a four-step pattern. They are cue, craving, response and reward.
- Cue. This is a prompt or information that says there’s a reward on offer e.g., like, like the smell of a pizza or a dark room waiting to light up.
- Craving. This is the motivation to change something so you can have the reward, like tasting the pizza or being able to see.
- Response. This is your thought or action you have in order to get the reward.
- Reward. This is the feeling of satisfaction you get as well as the lesson learned whether to do it again or not.
To develop and keep positive habits, James Clear recommends four criteria. The behaviour changes you want to make and which become an ingrained habit, need to be obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
3. Make the change you want obvious
It is in making small changes that are appealing and compelling to your behaviour that you can make significant changes in your life. These small changes when repeated over and over again will become ingrained habits that could in the long- term lead to major results.
4. Make the change you want easy
A technique James Clears recommends is called the two- minute rule. The key to this is that any activity can become a habit if it can be done in two minutes. An example is you want to go in a fun run, then commit to putting on your running gear once a day. By taking one step like this and getting started is it easier achieve that behaviour change you want.
5. Make the change you want satisfying
In most cases behaviour we want to change can take time, for example, saving for a holiday. We will eventually get the reward if we stick to the intentions and habits we are developing. The reward for these goals is more of a delayed gratification.
However, getting some more immediate gratification while you are developing the change into a habit, will help you. In the example of saving for a holiday, every time you reach a certain amount give yourself a small reward.
6. Make the change you want attractive
We are all motivated by the anticipation of having something appealing so making your habits attractive will help you stay with them. We increase the feel-good hormone dopamine when we do something pleasurable but we also increase this hormone when we anticipate that pleasurable activity.
If you make the habit you are developing something you look forward to rather than a punishment, you will more likely follow through with the habit.
7. Stack the behaviour change onto an established habit
Another great technique mentioned in the book is called habit stacking. This is when you add a behaviour you want to incorporate into your life onto a habit you do effortlessly each day.
For example, if you want to commit to practising meditation but are finding it hard to schedule each day, plan to do this after you have had your morning coffee. This will help you by using the momentum from an existing habit to another habit you want to integrate into your life.
8. Track your habits
One of your possible actions could be to develop a habit tracker, using a journal or a calendar and noting each day how you have stuck with your behaviours you are trying to integrate into your life. It is an effective and satisfying habit to develop. You have the anticipation and then the action of noting every day your progress.
Changing deep seated behaviours and habits takes courage and perseverance. By using the techniques outlined in this article can really help with making deep and lasting changes to enhance your life.
My Life Journal course, a 5-week online course teaching you skills in coaching yourself to a more fulfilling life, has some excellent evidence-based tools and techniques to support you in cultivating and embedding positive habits.
Following the self-coaching model in my Life Journal will help you develop a greater understanding of yourself, your core values, strengths and passions and, above all, your purpose in life.
The Life Journal course will support you in developing a compelling vision for your life and set inspiring but achievable goals. You will develop and implement a Personal Action Plan with specific actions for each week. You will also learn an effective tool for monitoring your progress towards your goals.
By setting goals to enhance your life circumstances and your inner wellbeing and then taking effective action which includes cultivating positive habits, you will learn to make deep and lasting changes in your life.