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How to lose bad habits

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How to lose bad habits

There are some bad habits that we would like to get rid of as quickly as possible. But why is this often so difficult? Why is our brain so attached to recurring behaviors and what can we do about it?

Dieser Beitrag ist auch verfügbar auf: Deutsch

On average, we check our phones 214 times a day, a number that makes psychologists scratch their heads. Most of the time, we’re not even doing it because someone has texted us or because we want to look something up. It’s because our brain tells us to.

Daily routines help our brain conserve energy

Millions of people are told by their brains to drink a cup of coffee every morning, smoke a cigarette after dinner, drink a glass of wine in the evening, and more. We do this even though we know it is bad for our health. We call these behaviors bad habits – but our brains love them more than anything else.

The reason: Routines conserve energy. Researchers have found that the areas responsible for complex thought processes and decisions stop working when we are in routine mode. Conversely, this means that anyone who wants to change their habits faces one of the biggest challenges of all: reprogramming their neural network and the brain’s entire motivation system.

“Between 30 and 50 percent of our daily actions are determined by habits,” says Bas Verplanken, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bath.

Why do we find it so difficult to give up bad habits?

Checking your smartphone 20 times an hour, drinking five cups of coffee a day, biting your fingernails while watching TV: Everyone develops bad habits over the course of their lives. Our selfish brains are to blame. “Dealing with new and complicated things requires awareness, attention and concentration – which is why the brain requires routines,” says Gerhard Roth of the University of Bremen.

For years, the professor at the Institute for Brain Research has been studying why it is so difficult to motivate people to give up bad habits. “Habits are cheap both for our metabolism and for our brain. Changes in structures and functions in the areas of feeling, thinking and acting, on the other hand, are complex and expensive in terms of metabolic physiology,” he writes in his German-language book “Coaching, Beratung und Gehirn“ (“Coaching, Counseling and the Brain”).

Abandoning bad habits

We know from neurobiology that it takes at least 21 days for old motivational patterns to be erased from the brain. In other words, the biochemical update is complete and the old program is overwritten. This process works best if you follow these three basic rules:

1. Be prepared for challenges

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has developed a successful formula for self-motivation. WOOP stands for “Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan”. This means that if you want to break a bad habit, you should be prepared for temptations, obstacles, and stumbling blocks. This allows you to plan in advance how you will respond to the dangers.

2. Change the environment you are in

“Habits are always triggered by stimuli from the environment,” says Bas Verplanken of the University of Bath. “And to make matters worse, it’s usually not just one stimulus, but a whole context in which a particular habit is embedded.”

This means that we tend to repeat many everyday actions in a very specific setting: in a particular place, at a familiar time, in certain moods, or with selected people. It is this setting that should be changed. For example, psychologist Wendy Wood found that smokers who wanted to quit were twice as successful if they started on vacation.

3. Establish a replacement routine

An effective way of reprogramming is to install new routine programming in the brain, i.e., replacing a bad habit with a good habit. For example, you can replace a cigarette after a meal with an apple. Once you have managed to establish a new stimulus in the brain’s motivational pattern, the habit literally becomes self-perpetuating.

Just like former Ironman triathlete Jan Frodeno did it. His new routine programming made him train almost unconsciously every day, helping him tap into his inner strength, discipline and motivation – taking the concept of routine to a whole new level.

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