We’re in that point of the year when many of us resolve to do things differently going forward. Most of these involve ending existing habits that have formed in our brains over the course of years or even decades.
This is why so many New Year’s resolutions falter.
Our brains have so much to do between running the critical automatic functions of our body like heartbeats and breathing and the relatively small slice of brainpower left for everything else, so they automate everything they can.
That makes it easy to ingrain a routine of grabbing a cigarette when you’re bored or a bag of chips when you’re sitting down to work on something you’ve been trying to avoid. All you need is a trigger and a response.
There are two simple, if not always easy, steps to breaking a bad habit:
Recognize the trigger and response
Figure out what’s happening when you start doing the thing you want to stop. What situation precedes that action? Is that situation avoidable?
If not, pay attention to what you get out of the response. Is the reward as satisfying as you think it is? You may decide the smell and taste of cigarettes is unappealing, or the self-recrimination you subject yourself to after eating the whole bag of chips drains too much time and energy.
Start wiring a new neural path for a more positive response
Tapping into mindfulness is a great trick here; it resets your brain to stay active by observing the moment rather than turning to autopilot.
Try to get engrossed in that project you’ve been using snacks as a crutch to get yourself through. If you’re stressed, you can try to resolve the situation causing the anxiety or else turn your focus to whatever you’re choosing to do in the moment.
This technique doesn’t always work by itself if you’re dealing with addiction to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, but it’s worth trying for any habit you want to break.