When to change your habits

If you’ve been thinking about changing some of your habits, the beginning of the year is a great time to start.

Whether you want to drink less, quit smoking, do more exercise, get to bed earlier or just smile more often, it’s not easy to break a habit. The reason is simple. They’re habits. So they will take an effort to change them.

Most of what we do on a daily basis is driven by habits. Humans are creatures of habit. We’re wired to learn and put in place activities that sustain us without giving it a moment’s thought. Habits free your mind and your energy for new situations and new problems that require new decisions, creativity and actions. Unfortunately, the brain really doesn’t discriminate between the bad habits and the good ones. Once a routine is sorted into the “automatic” category, it’s hard to get it back out.

The first thing to do is to cut yourself some slack and realise you cannot change habits immediately. To change a habit you need to determine the underlying cause. All habits have a function. For example, the habit of checking your email first thing in the morning helps you organise your day. Or, drinking too much may be the only way you know how to be social. If you want to break the habit, you have to come to grips with whatever function the bad habit is serving.

You need to deal with the real problem. If you’re snacking on junk food all afternoon and not eating lunch, it’s obvious you’re doing this to satisfy hunger. Change your eating habits to enjoy a satisfying lunch, away from your workspace. This means you won’t be as hungry during the afternoon and go looking for the vending machine.

Writing down the habit you wish to change and putting it in a prominent place where you can see it through the day is another good way to help break a habit. Just writing your goal and reading it regularly will help keep you on track to break the habit.

Be accountable to someone. They don’t have to want to break a habit too, rather they are there to remind and encourage you to achieve your goal. Buddy systems work and help to release any pressure you feel while changing your lifestyle.

Give yourself plenty of time, as it is not easy breaking a habit when you are conditioned to it. Be prepared to slip up, but recognise the slip and get back on track quickly or you will waste your effort.

Current research shows that most of us need about three months to substitute a new behaviour for a bad habit. Everyone is different and some people need longer. It depends on the habit, your personality, your level of stress, and the support you have in place.