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How do Habits Start And What Can We Do to Kick The Bad Ones?


Yawn! It’s 7.05am. You roll out of bed, grab a shower, munch some toast and head out the door for work. Julie Beun Finds Out.

How to Break a Habit

It sounds routine, but the intricate ballet that takes you unthinkingly from your front door to work and home again is
actually not dictated by your choices. Rather, about 45 per cent of these steps are a matter of habit, says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.


So how do habits work and what can be done to kick bad ones?

The Power Of Habit

To explain where habits come from and how they can change, Duhigg cites the example of Lisa Allen, a 34-year-old graphic
designer who was studied by neurologists in a US lab.

Most of her life, Allen had been overweight, a heavy smoker and deeply in debt. Yet, during the four years prior to the study, she’d quit smoking, lost 27kg, paid off her debts, started a master’s degree and even run a marathon.

The trigger? She wanted to trek through the desert in Egypt and realised that to achieve her goal, she’d have to lose weight, get in shape, get out of debt and quit smoking. Over the next six months she achieved all of those goals.

When researchers scanned Allen’s brain, they found her old habits were still active – when she saw food, she still had the urge to overeat, for example – but the habits were also being overridden by new ones. “By focusing on one pattern, what is known as a ‘keystone habit’, Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well,” says Duhigg.


How Habits Form

Like taking the same way home every day, habits are basically routines the subconscious brain converts through ‘chunking’ into automatic sequences so the conscious brain is freed up for other things.

“Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort,” says Duhigg. “Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”

Breaking The Habit

“To change a habit, you have to analyse the cues and decide to shift your routine to make it change,”says Duhigg. Our brains don’t automatically tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. So how do you change a habit? You don’t – you replace it with a new one, says Duhigg.“The power of cues and rewards are so overwhelming you can’t really break a habit. It’s better to find a new behaviour that delivers a similar reward.”

3 Ways To Make A Change

The Exercise Habit

You’d love to go for a run before work, but you feel rushed to get ready for your day. Before long, it feels like a punishment and you give up. Instead, create a cue-reward system that makes you feel good. Start with a visual cue, like laying out your running gear the night before.

Then, make sure the reward is satisfying, like a long, hot shower or a small piece of chocolate. Over time, that will create a craving for the reward and result in other new routines like better sleep habits, diet and lifestyle choices.“Only when your brain starts expecting the reward will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue must also trigger a craving for a reward to come.”

The Eating Habit

At 10pm every night, your favourite showstarts and you automatically head to the kitchen for a small snack. By the third set of ads, you’ve eaten your way through a block of chocolate. When it comes to overeating, it’s not enough to stop yourself from getting up – you have to knowwhy you’re doing it. First, ask yourself howyou feel when you crave more of a snack or treat.

Next, write down why you overeat: are you bored, anxious, unhappy or lonely? Once you’ve identified that, think of a‘competing response’that creates a new cue-reward-habit cycle – taking a shower, calling a friend, going for a walk or meditating.“If you plan ahead you’re more likely to stick with a low-kilojoule diet,” says Duhigg.

The Smoking Habit

You may have quit smoking years ago, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the same old cravings. Because habits are embedded in the brain’s structures we’re always at risk of temptation. So, it’s critical to understand the cue-reward

cycle that creates the nicotine craving. “If you want to quit, find a different routine that will satisfy the cravings filled by cigarettes. Then, find a support group, a collection of other former smokers or community that will help you believe you can stay away from nicotine and use that group when you feel you might stumble.”



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