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10 Simple Steps to Hacking a Habit

If you want to know how to break bad habits or create good ones, start with changing the wiring in your brain.

Behaviours that we repeat become habits. And habits are like freeways in our neural networks. This means that your brain rearranges itself to create shortcuts allowing you to effectively carry out a behaviour that you often engage in, whether that behaviour is helpful to you or not.  

The purpose of this restructuring in the brain is maximum efficiency and speed. If you do something often, then having a direct, clear route to the end goal means you use less time and energy. Eventually, you don’t even need to think about what you are doing anymore because the program is so effective.

New pathways in your brain start getting laid down within three weeks of starting a new behaviour. But to really get that new behaviour to start feeling like a habit, it takes an average of 100 days to create a super highway in your brain that you can drive down on auto pilot, automating a healthy behaviour which overrides the previous destructive one. 

Here are my 10 steps to habit hacking.

1. Get really clear on what it is you want to change

You MUST be specific. Giving yourself loop holes is going to mess with the new road map you are trying to create in your brain. 

So, for example, don’t tell yourself ‘I want to stop smoking but I’ll let myself have a few when I am having a drink’. Or ‘I want to cut out sweets but I’ll treat myself on the weekends for being good during the week’.

For those first 21 days, your brain needs a very clear instruction that is not open to misinterpretation or manipulation by you in moments of weakness. There should be no wiggle room. If ‘you’re allowed’ to eat sweets on weekend, before you know it, you’ll be sabotaging yourself when you’ve had a tough week to start including Friday into your weekend. You know how it is!

So, what do you want to stop? Smoking, alcohol, sugar, overeating, meat, procrastination, gossiping? Or what do you want to start? Exercising, eating more mindfully, meditation, going to bed earlier? Whatever you want to achieve, the key is to be specific. Take some time to define what change you want to implement and have clear goals that you intend to reach. 

2. Look at behaviour clustering

Nerves that wire together, fire together. What other behaviours now piggy back on the habit that you are trying to break? For example, do you tend to binge eat chocolate whilst watching Netflix? Or do you always crave a cigarette when you have a coffee?

For maximum success in eliminating the main bad habit, you need to get rid of the behaviour cues that trigger your bad habit. So, for 21 days aim to stop watching programs in the evening if your main goal is to stop overeating when watching tv, or stop drinking coffee if you know that it makes you crave a cigarette. 

Woman writing down goals in her journal

3. Write it down!

Commit to this contract with yourself by putting it in writing. And read this contract at the start and end of every day.

4. Clear your path

  • If you’re committing to cutting out sugar, don’t have chocolate lying around. 
  • If you’re a smoker, don’t have a lucky pack hidden somewhere. 
  •  If you’re choosing a healthy diet, pack your pantry with healthy things you like. 

5. Visualise your new self

Start creating a mental picture of how the new you will look and be.  You can draft this like the outline of a character for a movie script or book. Become the character. Or if there is someone you admire or ‘wish’ you were like, use them as your template.

  • See yourself enjoying yourself with friends, laughing and having a great time with no cigarette in your hand.
  • Picture yourself becoming stronger and faster from the exercise you are doing.
  • Imagine yourself vibrant and energetic, your skin smooth and glowing from all the nutritional foods you are putting inside yourself.

6. Day 21

Choose your start date, I recommend NOW. Go onto Google search and type in ‘21 days from today’. Note the date, put an alert in your phone. Now all you have to do is start!

You don’t have to count the days you get through. If anything, this may be counterproductive. It’s not going to be helpful to tell yourself at the end of each day ‘another day done’ as if you’ve just worked a gruesome shift and tomorrow you have to torture yourself again. By putting a reminder for day 21, you don’t have to get tangled up in any analysis. It’s simplified. You just do it.

7. Get any extra help you need

  • If you’re giving up smoking, seek a doctor to discuss what pharmaceutical options may help you.
  • If you’re embarking on a fitness change, talk to a personal coach, get a program. Go online and watch some YouTube videos. 
  • If you’re changing the way you eat, see a nutritionist or dietitian. If that’s not for you, then download a healthy eating app.
  • Surround yourself with people that are already doing what you want to achieve for example through online forums or Facebook groups.
  • Ask someone else to do the shopping if you think temptation might overwhelm you

8. Encourage yourself

From time to time check the calendar to see how many days are left to 21. And pat yourself on the back for what you’ve achieved. 

9. Practice gratitude

Give thanks for the journey and experience you’ve had and the new mental resilience you’ve developed.

Old habits and new habits written in the sand

10. Remember your body is not your master

When you feel the urge to give in, remind yourself that you are in charge. That’s you your mind, not you your body. We have one life. If you live 80 years that’s 29,200 days. Tell yourself ‘surely, surely I can be in command of myself for just 21 days?’

And when the 21 days are done, you will have a new behaviour in the making, you’ll be on your way to creating a new highway in your brain that comes to you naturally and you’ll be able to continue practising it with ease.

But don’t forget, the old pathway is still there in your brain, if you give it too much of an opportunity it will try to push itself into the limelight again.

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