As spring equinox takes us by storm this week and ushers in the season of new beginnings, I thought it fitting to talk about creating new beginnings for ourselves. In many spiritual traditions, this is the season where rituals focus on creating something new in one’s life. In many practices this is the time of renewal, rebirth, and new growth following a time of reflection and rest.
As we move toward the culmination of the reflection period we emerge from a period of challenge to slingshot into something new and better. We have faced our demons and recommitted to our journey to become the best version of ourselves. These concepts are observed in religious traditions (lent, fasting, giving up), fairy tales (the quest), philosophy (the hero’s journey), and nature (winter). This week, where will you be challenging yourself and what will you be giving up in effort to spring forward into something new and better for yourself?
Change is hard. If it was not we’d be making a lot more changes in our lives on a more regular basis. However to build new habits we must be conscious that we want to change. We must reflect accurately on our lives and determine what is working and what is not working for us. We must be willing to observe our own patterns and challenge our own beliefs. This is not easy. It is hard to consider what I may be doing that is not helping me and it is hard to change a habit. According to Lally and Gardner (2013) “when designing behaviour change interventions, it is important to focus both on disrupting existing undesirable habits and developing new desirable habits” (p. 16). This means it is important to determine what you want to let go of and then figure out a way to disrupt it in your daily life. Then you must figure out what you do want and figure out a way to anchor it into your routine.
Disrupting Old Habits
Let’s start with disrupting an old habit. Habits are different than goal directed behaviors. Whereas goal directed behavior happens with consciousness and effort, habits are behaviors that have become somewhat automatic in your life. You often do not think about them, they are just the way you go about doing things.
For example, you come home from work and have a glass of wine everyday. For some they do not pay much attention to this habit it is just something they have been doing for a long time. The glass of wine is anchored to coming home from work. Another example is overeating. Often the person is not paying attention to how much they are actually eating. They overfill a plate or grab the full bag of chips and eat it while distracted by the TV. They reach for a soda or candy bar to give a quick burst of energy but do not notice that they did not really need the whole thing, they just finish it because it is there sitting on the desk or as a familiar option in the vending machine. Again, examination of the environment in which the behavior is done will reveal anchors and help disrupt the process of habit completion.
As you disrupt the anchor part of the habit, what you are really doing is disrupting the environment. This is a key factor in changing behaviors. By disrupting the environment you change the way your anchors are engaging you in routine behaviors. This is a very effective way to break a habit. To start, track your habit. Behavior research shows us the power of tracking. Just the act of tracking a behavior can change it. Tracking brings awareness and opportunities to reflect upon what is working and what is not from an objective point of view.
Ask yourself these questions as you track:
- What is happening right before you do it?
- What happens right after?
- How do you feel when you want to do it?
- How do you feel when you are in process of doing it?
- What does it feel like when you have completed it?
- Who were you with?
- Who did you want to be with?
- Where were you?
The answer to these questions offer examples of places you can make a change in your internal and external environments. For some, disruptions of the environment may look like taking another way home so you do not pass the liquor store or bar you like to hang with your friends. It could be finding new places to eat so you are not habitually ordering the same thing off the menu. Or it could look like changing communities or homes.
Creating New Habits
On the other hand once we take away an old habit we need to replace it with something else. We call this a redirection or attention shift. It helps us maneuver change by giving us something else to focus on. As you consider the answers to the questions above you begin to see places you can change your environment, now look at them to see what else would work in those instances. For example, you might find that coming home from work to a glass of wine is about connecting to your partner and slowing down. Can you create a ritual that helps you meet those two needs without the wine involved? Of course you can, it just takes time and repetition.
Building new habits is about consciously changing our behaviors and then repeating them so we build the neuro-pathways for the new behavior. This can be difficult as we often have habits paired with anchors as noted above. When the anchor behavior happens we automatically do the routine habit. We might forget to do the new habit and feel defeated as a result so we give up easily. However the more we go through the process of deciding to change and working to change, even when we fail, we are shifting our neural structures toward our goals. There are two ways we can help ourselves remember to complete the new habit: 1) create an action plan and 2) create a coping plan.
In the action plan walk yourself through the new habit, the corresponding behavior anchors, the feelings you will have as a result of successfully implementing the new habit, and visualize yourself completing it. It is as simple as writing out your new habit step by step. This creates a play by play plan to create the new habit in your life and obtain its automatic status in your routine. As part of the action plan create implementation intention. Research points to using if – then implementation intentions (Lally & Gardner, 2013) as a way to help guide you through the steps needed to complete the new habit in your routines. If X happens I will do Y. This gives you planning and options for dealing with real life situations. In the end, by creating an action plan you are helping yourself visualize and mentally walk through necessary steps to make your new habit a success.
Coping plans offer a little more flexibility. They ask you to create a plan to deal with obstacles that are going to arise on your path to creating a new habit and breaking the old one. They offer the opportunity to think through difficult steps on the journey to creating new habits by reflecting on what could derail you. In the coping plan we often list all the obstacles we can think of and create options to get around them. Say you want to quit drinking but are not sure how to handle social situations. We would review possible scenarios and come up with ideas and ways you can manage your behavior in them with success toward your goal.
As in disrupting a habit by changing or redirecting the anchor behavior, you can use anchors to help you create new habits. A example is working out. The alarm goes off in the morning and the person gets up, changes into workout clothing, and puts on running shoes. They head out to run. Changing of clothing and putting on running shoes is anchored to the alarm going off and getting out of bed. When creating a new habit it is best to anchor the new habit to follow one that is solid in your routine. You do not want to be crafting 2 new habits. Using something you do everyday – like get out of bed, go to bed, go to the bathroom, eat meals, etc can be very helpful making the new one successful.
Finally, you have to consider motivation. Motivation comes from inspiration. In the beginning we are all motivated for new habit formation. We get excited and make plans, offer ourselves rewards, and share our success and struggle, but a month in, 2 months in, a year into a long habit change and we often struggle to maintain motivation, which will kill a new habit faster than you can blink. The trick is to manage your inspiration. Everyday, look at your vision board, find interesting photos on Pinterest, youtube videos, or discuss your goals with friends. It is important to socialize your changes for accountability and to find intrinsic motivation to help you stay connected to the reasons you are working so hard to change. External rewards – prizes, new stuff, accolades – work for a bit, but if you do not find the internal pride, pleasure, and strength to stay on the path, your motivation will wane. Once it is gone so is the hard work of getting the change to happen.
The down and dirty on change:
To disrupt a habit you want to break:
- Track and figure out your patterns and anchors
- Change your environment
- Find new ways to focus and shift your attention
- Replace the old habit with something new
To create a new habit:
- Create an action plan
- Create a coping plan
- Determine your why – why is this so important to you now
- Find daily inspiration to maintain motivation
- Anchor new behavior to an activity you are already doing regularly
Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7:sup1, S137-S158. DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2011.603640