On Friday, April 29 Categories:

What is a habit? Habits are recurrent, often unconscious patterns of behavior that are acquired through frequent repetition. In fact, we live a good portion of our lives unconscious. That is, we operate on autopilot, doing what we've always done, without needing to give it much, if any thought. It's estimated that our brain consciously processes less than 1/3 of one percent of the signals that we receive from our senses. That's a good thing, in some cases, because it allows us to walk and chew gum at the same time. But for those of us who want to do more than that, we need to get conscious and purposefully choose our behaviors rather than having them choose us.

Why is changing habits so difficult. It's not just about discipline and willpower. When you do something often enough, you begin to create a 'rut' in the part of your brain called the hippocampus. I liken it to a tire track on a soft dirt road. Each time you do that behavior, (drive over that road), the rut gets deeper. At some point, it gets so deep you can't drive out of it. It, not you, steers the car. Habits work the same way. After a while, the habitual behavior, not your conscious thought, is running the show. In order to change a behavior, you have to create and practice a new, different and more effective one. You have to create a new rut in the road. And, you have to have a conscious thought or intention about using the behavior before the automatic one takes over. With enough practice, the new path becomes the new habit, and the old, one, now unused, gets covered over with brush and is impassable.

So, how do we go about replacing old, ineffective habits with new ones?

Here are 8 keys to creating new habits:

  1. Become aware. Notice or be made aware of the ineffective behavior and how it is affecting us.. That might happen when we get on the scale, have a car accident, get feedback from our boss or go to see a doctor.
  2. Describe the specific new behavior you want to adopt. Clearly describe the specific behavior you want to start doing and make your new habit. You'll be far more successful moving toward something than moving away from something. If you want to stop smoking, you have to find something that is pleasurable and healthy that you want to start to do instead. And, the more specific you can be in describing that new behavior, the better. Focus on behavior vs. results: Eat healthier food vs. lose weight or be fully present and listen to my children vs. have a better relationship with my kids.
  3. Visualize yourself using the new behavior. Sit quietly and do a visualization so you can get a clear picture. Notice what you are doing, who you are with and how you are feeling. Embrace that vision with all of your senses. Really experience it.
  4. Identify the value/benefit/outcome of using the new behavior. The change isn't going to be easy so there needs to be a payoff. What's in it for you? Be sure that the benefit is of value to you and not someone else's 'should'.
  5. Identify your early warning signals/triggers. Usually, a bad habit is triggered by some event, feeling or other external cue. For example, many people eat when they feel stressed, become defensive when someone disagrees with them. Determine what happens in your life that causes you to use the current behavior. What sensations do you get in your body that might be clues that you are about to behave in your habitual way? Who triggers you? What situations make you vulnerable? These events and feelings, like the lights in your car's dashboard, are your early warning signals that your old, ineffective practices are about to rear their ugly head.
  6. Develop physical cues to remind you to replace the old behavior with the new. In the heat of the moment, when you begin to notice the triggers, what can you do to make a conscious choice to behave differently or you can enlist a buddy to help you out by pointing out your old behavior and reminding you to use the new response.
  7. Celebrate each success. Notice and document the outcome of using the preferred behavior. Reinforce your efforts by acknowledging your progress and realizing the benefits.
  8. Practice, practice, practice. Over time, the new behavior will have created a new rut in your hippocampus and the old one will be over grown with weeds and impassible Then, as your new habit becomes an old habit, check in with yourself and be sure it doesn't outlive its usefulness.

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Cindy Loughran is a certified professional coach and the founder and president of New Leaf Touchstone. Her products and services help people break out of their habitual patterns and make desired changes in order to turn over a new leaf and create a fulfilling and satisfying life. http://www.newleaftouchstone.com

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