Breaking Bad Habits — Creating Good Ones

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It’s mid-January and statistics say that by now nearly half of us have broken our New Year’s resolutions. Really? What went wrong? Although many people might think it’s a matter of will power — or, more precisely, a lack of will power — the answer might be a bit more complicated than that. Writing for Healthline, Stacey McLachlan says that the problem is we’re not practicing self-directed neuroplasticity. Although the term sounds like a mouthful, it’s really based on common sense. “Self-directed neuroplasticity is when you intentionally rewire your brain to create positive habits,” says McLachlan. “People do this primarily through active reflection.”

Woman stretching

At its core, self-directed neuroplasticity involves consciously focusing on how habits make us feel. The subject of “habits” is itself a rich and fertile field. One aspect of a habit is the connection between an action and the reward that follows the action. McLachlan says that “When your brain recognizes a pattern, such as a connection between action and satisfaction, it files that information away neatly in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is also where we develop emotions and memories, but it’s not where conscious decisions are made — that’s the prefrontal cortex. This may be what makes habits so hard to break. They come from a brain region that’s out of your conscious control, so you’re barely aware you’re doing them, if at all.”

If you want to change a habit, though, the key question is — how? One effective way involves a core element of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT emphasizes the connection between your thoughts, emotions and actions. In particular, it calls on you to reflect on how an action makes you feel. McLachlan says that one way to change a habit is to “Reflect on how unhealthy behaviors make you feel bad, and how healthy behaviors make you feel good. Then write it down. Then talk to someone about them. Then reread what you’ve written a month down the road.”

Of course, breaking a habit is not quite that simple. Utilizing a range of techniques increases your chance of successfully changing habits. Here are some techniques, according to Healthline, that may help you change a habit.

  • Say your goal out loud.
  • Swap a new habit for an old one.
  • Aim small (to start!)
  • Add on to an existing routine.
  • Banish the all-or-nothing mentality.
  • Create a plan that plays to your strengths.
  • Change your language.
  • Visualize success.
  • Set up the right cues in your environment.
  • Give yourself a break.

Read the full discussion habits and how to change them here.