How To Break Old Habits And Be Happy

I often speak and write about feeling stuck, and that’s because feeling stuck is all too often the main driver of a person feeling unhappy. And one of the drivers of being stuck in the same place is habit.

We often view habit as related to a physical action such as drinking, smoking, gambling etc etc. But habit is also built into our everyday lives – from our early morning routines to the way in which we speak to people.

We are what we do (even if you don’t like it!). We are especially what we do repeatedly. We are our habits. That sentiment has been expressed, in various ways, by everyone from Aristotle to Gandhi to Stephen Covey. And yet, most of us continue to stay stuck in our habits, seemingly unable to move forward.

I’m here to tell you: You can move. You can change your habits.

Let’s start by looking at how habits are formed and reinforced. I’m a fan of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. (I recommend it to my clients and readers.) He offers an elegantly simple explanation of habits. He describes a habit loop:

1. The trigger is the event that starts the habit. It’s the cue to your brain to go into automatic pilot and let a behaviour unfold.
2. The routine is the behaviour itself.
3. The reward is the benefit associated with the behaviour. That benefit helps your brain remember the “habit loop” in the future. This is how your brain decides whether this particular loop is worth remembering.

We may not be able to change the trigger or the reward, but we can change our behaviour –the routine. And that changes habit.

Stop and think about that. This means our habits are what we choose them to be. That’s powerful. Destructive habits can be changed or replaced with more nurturing, constructive ones. As Duhigg writes, “If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real”.

This isn’t normal

Let’s consider habits – making and breaking them – in terms of getting “unstuck” from a situation.

One of the problems with habits is that we confuse “habit” with “normal”. We become so used to our “stuckness” that it begins to feel normal. But it’s not normal! It’s merely habit. We become so habituated that we have trouble even thinking of what “different” might look and feel like. Our brains love a pattern which is why habit becomes so easy we don’t even have to ‘think’ about it.

The first step, therefore, is to get honest with yourself about what’s going on. (See the previous blog post for a simple self-assessment–link to previous quiz)

Figure out where you are now and decide where you want to be, disrupt the pattern with something new and different. Think about the situation and environment you are in when you ‘do this habit that you won’t want’, removing yourself from the environment or situation can help with change. Devise a plan to get there. Start making some different choices. In other words, create new habits. Small steps are better than no steps at all.

A good place to begin is with your vision and your language.

Broaden your vision

Start envisioning what your ideal new situation will look like. Be big and bold. Let your imagination run wild. Have fun with this process.

  • Do you see yourself in a new relationship or do you see yourself enjoying some alone time at home?
  • If you want a new relationship, what qualities should your new partner have? What qualities will you bring?
  • If you want a new job, what type of role do you want? What does it pay? What sort of company is it? What are your colleagues like? Imagine yourself speaking with a new boss you like.

Add as much colour and detail as possible. Put yourself in this ideal future. Feel what you will feel when you’ve made the changes and this is your new reality.

Create an exciting and motivating vision to draw you forward and encourage you to take the daily action you need to reach that new destination. Imagine stepping into this new situation a month or two hence and feel the euphoria and strength that came with making the changes.

But imagining isn’t enough.

Watch your language!

Language shapes our reality. Think about the language you use and switch to positive statements. For example, replace

  • “I can’t” with “I will”.
  • “It’s too hard” with “I can create and choose my own future”.
  • “There isn’t much I can do about it” with “I am in control; I can make choices and choose my reaction and actions”.

The wording you use to think and talk about your situation is very important and has a profound impact on the way you feel. Considering the number of words available to us, most of us use only a few to interact and describe our experiences. If our language tends to be negative, we need to make a conscious effort to use more neutral or positive language to replace the negative. That rewires our brain. Again, you are forming new habits.

Over time your habitual language patterns will change so that you support yourself rather than sabotage yourself. Remember it only takes 21 days to ‘change’ a habit, so even if you think you aren’t getting anywhere or your relapse ‘keep going’. !

I’ll let William James, an American psychologist who also wrote a book on habits, have the last word.

“Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.”

(Want more? For more guidance on taking control of your life and your habits, check out my book, Your Life Your Way.