Habits influence everyday decisions, but they shouldn’t control you. Learn how habit breaking works and use it to make changes in your life.
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Habit Breaking: How To Do It
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Habit Breaking: How To Do It

Habits influence everyday decisions, but they shouldn’t control you. Learn how habit breaking works and use it to make changes in your life.

Emotions are also some of the most common triggers for negative habits. Eating when bored or scrolling mindlessly through social media are well-known examples of this.


Habits influence your everyday life decisions whether you are conscious of it or not. In reality, most of your decisions are made for you subconsciously before you think about them. About 45% of your days’ activities are performed habitually [i], and humans are known to be creatures of habit. This is why understanding your habits and how to change them is so important. Taking the time to understand and be mindful of your habits will give you the power to take back control of that half of your life your subconscious manipulates.


Before learning how to change a habit, you have to first understand how and why they form. This may also be known as habit breaking. Habits can be defined as an “automatic behavior that is triggered by context from the situation” [i]. To further understand, this definition is going to be broken down into two sections: automatic behavior and triggers. 


The automatic part of habits is what keeps you alive. You can only make so many decisions in a day, and the quality of those decisions would go down as you spend your brain power through the day. If you had to make a conscious decision about the million things you do in a day, you would be caught up in the pros and cons of some decisions while there would not be enough brain left for others, and nothing would get done. Some common examples are driving and walking. You don’t have to think about how to shift gear in a car every time you do it. Habits allow your brain to free up some of that brainpower to direct it to problems that are more important, like whether or not that black thing on the ground is a piece of lint or a spider. Habits having automatic behavior takes the hard work from your brain and frees it to do something else.


Triggers are what cause the behavior to happen, and they are the key to forming and breaking habits. Triggers can be anything that your brain associates with a habit action, and these are based on factors like your environment, who you are with, or what just happened. Objects, people, or events can be triggers, and the more the trigger precedes a specific behavior, the stronger the link in the brain between the two. This is called Hebbian Learning, and in other words means “neurons that fire together, wire together” [ii]. Basically, the more the trigger and behavior happens together, the stronger the habit and the harder it is to break it. This can continue on until the habit occurs on full autopilot; for example, washing your hands after using the bathroom or shutting the door when you leave a room. Triggers can make or break a habit and understanding how triggers work can give you the power of control over your habits.


Now that triggers and habits have been explained, here are some tips on how to change a negative habit. In short, if there’s no trigger, there’s no habit. However, sometimes it is hard to entirely get rid of a trigger. Four types of triggers are categorized as a preceding event, a location, an emotional state, or they are other people. For all of these types of triggers, there are few main things you can use to try to break a negative habit. The first one is by overwriting the habit, and this is done by purposely changing your behavior when the trigger associated with the negative habit appears. This is useful for when the trigger is another individual or if it is a preceding event. Another option is just avoiding the trigger in the first place. This is most useful for triggers that are locations because it is sometimes easier to just not go back, and just as a reminder, no trigger means no habitual behavior. Additionally, with location triggers, you can overwrite a negative habit by focusing on building good habits there. It can help to put objects or notes around in the location in order to remind yourself of the habit you want to form to replace the negative one you have. Emotions are also some of the most common triggers for negative habits. Eating when bored or scrolling mindlessly through social media are well-known examples of this. In order to be successful while trying to change a habit associated with an emotional trigger, you have to be able to identify your feelings. This can be challenging, especially since your emotions themselves obscure your awareness. To determine the negative emotional state, it is necessary to use objective signs (more of this another time).  Lastly, having a support system can help break or change a negative habit. By telling a friend or family member, they can help reinforce and encourage you and your efforts. They will hold you accountable, but they will also be able to tell when you are struggling with the change as well [i], increasing your chances for success. 


With the knowledge of how habits form and the tips on how to change them, you now have some tools to help you with your journey. Remember that while the brain forms habits to help you out, sometimes they are not healthy. Build a support system, identify your negative habits, and make a change for the better. Habit breaking can take your health in a new direction, a direction that you choose. Use these tools to take control over the aspects of your life you wish to and don’t let habits make your decisions for you. 


A quick check-list on habit breaking. 

  • Write down the habit
  • List triggers for that habit
  • Determine what type of trigger it is
  • Preceding event
  • Locational
  • Emotional
  • People
  • Plan your solution (avoid, replace, evaluate)
  • Create a support system

References

[i] Sparks, Chris. “Triggers - The Key to Building and Breaking Habits.” Medium, Medium, 22 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@SparksRemarks/triggers-the-key-to-building-and-breaking-habits-fa8ed153ab0c. 

[ii] Sparks, Chris. “Why Habits Are More Important Than We Can Imagine.” Medium, Medium, 22 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@SparksRemarks/why-habits-are-more-important-than-we-can-imagine-d44628036117.

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