Why do I do that? Understanding Habits
Habits are things we do without really thinking about them – a kind of mental short cut that makes life more convenient by freeing up our attention for less routine activities.
Stop reading for just a moment and think about how many things you do every day on ‘auto-pilot’.
Are you back now? Maybe you came up with driving, putting the same leg into your trousers first when you get dressed, where you put your keys when you come in, signing your name. I’m sure there were others. These are all simple routines we all go through on a regular basis, but how many of them provide you with a sense of accomplishment? Probably none.
Habit routines can be very good for us and useful, or a complete pain to live with.
If one of your habits is smoking, for example, or biting your nails, you may do these things so automatically that you don’t really know when you’re doing them. Habits can take over and go on in the background without you seeming to make a choice or a decision about doing them, and this is when the less useful ones can become a problem.
Understanding how a habit forms is one of the best ways to getting rid of the ones that are no longer useful to you, and feeling more in control.
Habits form because at some level they have (or, at least, had) a positive purpose.
As I said above, a habit is essentially a shortcut to a behaviour that would normally take more thinking and attention. Think about learning to drive or write your name and how much attention that took when you were new to it. And then compare how much it takes now, when it’s become a habit.
We learn these automated short cuts through repetition; the more often you do something the more likely it is to become a habit. And once it is formed, a habit will appear right on cue whenever the ‘right’ circumstances arise.
The Habit Loop
This is how the habit loop works:
● The Cue is something which tells our brain it’s time to perform the habit.
● The Routine is the behaviour we carry out in that situation.
● The Reward is exactly that – what you get out of having the habit. (Although an unwanted habit like biting your nails might not seem rewarding, part of your brain thinks it is. Every time you do it, your amygdala sends out a feeling of contentment.)
For example, every night after work you come home, put your keys on the table, pour a glass of wine, and start checking Facebook. This helps you relax and switch off your ‘work brain’.
● The Cue: you get home.
● The Routine: put the keys on the table and settle down to look at Facebook with a glass of wine
● The Reward: relaxation, switching off from work, getting in touch with friends.
Parts of this work in our favour, of course. If you habitually put your keys in the same place every time you come home, you can always find them there the next time you’re going out. But if you want to reduce your alcohol intake, parts of it are working against you as well.
How to break a habit
It’s nearly always easier to replace a habit with something better than to leave a space where it used to be; to interrupt the pattern when the cue happens and find a different way to provide the reward. This is why, if you come to see me about changing any sort of habit, I will ask you ‘what do you want to do instead?’
If you look at the example, you can probably see that the reward is fine – most of us need to unwind after a day at work. But if you also wanted to reduce your alcohol consumption, you’d need to change what you do to achieve that.
To tweak the routine effectively you need to understand what your cue is. In our example, it’s coming home from work. You could simply replace the wine with a non-alcoholic drink, or take the phone upstairs and read it in a long relaxing bath.
These small changes can make a big difference. You’ll have to think about them at first, but they will soon become just as much a habit as the old routine was.
Understanding the Habit Loop will help you create new routines and improve your life. When you interrupt the process of established habits, you can make changes more easily and get rid of unwanted behavioural routines.
And, of course, if you have any trouble doing that please contact me to make an appointment. Hypnotherapy works with the unconscious part of the mind, where automatic behaviours begin, so it can help identify the triggers and put in place the more helpful habits you want to have.
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.