Making change stick

Originally written for LawTalk magazine published 30 June 2016

We all seem to have habits we want to change.  We often struggle with them, mostly they win and then we try again.  It’s often said it takes 21 – 28 days to form a habit.  If you’ve ever tried to make, break or change a habit, and chances are you have, you’ll know there’s more to it than that.

Whether we want to start something new, like establish an exercise habit or stop something, like smoking, there’s always something that we could improve on to make ourselves better people.  So why can’t we just get on and do it?

According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, habits are simple cue-routine-reward loops designed to save effort that get ingrained into our brains.  It works like this:

  1. We get an external cue – this creates a spike in brain activity and we decide what action is appropriate for the situation.
  2. The action we‘re used to performing when we get this cue is performed.
  3. We get a feeling of reward or success as our brain registers the completion of the activity and this reinforces the link between the cue and the routine.

We make these cue-routine-reward loops because our brain is constantly looking for ways to save energy.  The part of the brain responsible is the basal ganglia which programmes our repetitive behaviour so we don’t need to consciously think about it.  It often overpowers our prefrontal cortex, that part responsible for conscious, reasonable decision making which takes consequences of action and abstract ideas like morality into account. The prefrontal cortex uses more energy to do this and is easily tired so going along with the habit stored in our basal ganglia is oftentimes just easier.

Our brains love habits – as behaviours become automatic and ingrained in this cue-routine-reward loop, we no longer have to think about it – we just do – and it frees up space for our brains to focus on other things.

The habits are further reinforced because we develop a craving for the reward we feel at the end of the habit loop.  The more we perform these habits, the stronger the neural pathways related to those actions become.

Research estimates that as much as 40% of the actions we perform each day are based on habits and not on conscious decisions.

 Behavioural change

So you’ve decided there’s a habit you’d like to change.  Understanding the Transtheoretical Model of behavioural change (also called the Stages of Change Model), by Prochaska and DiClemente developed in the 1980s and still in use today in developing health behavioural change interventions, can help us to understand why change can be difficult.

The model suggests that change is a process undertaken over time and made up of a number of stages.  Progress through the Stages of Change can happen in a linear way but nonlinear progression is also common.stages of change

Briefly, the Stages of Change are:

Precontemplation You’re not intending to take any action in the foreseeable future (usually the next 6 months).  Either you don’t consider the consequences of the behaviour is important or maybe you’ve tried to change previously, maybe several times, failed and became demoralised.

Contemplation You’re intending to take action in the next 6 months.  You can see the pros and cons of the behaviour change but you’re not quite ready for action.  This is a stage of researching and gathering information, considering how your life will look with this new habit (or without the old habit) and how you can make it work in your lifestyle.

Preparation You’re ready to take action in the next month. You’ve joined the gym, researched healthier ways of eating or what you’re going to do when you’re faced with the triggers that launch you into your habit loop.

Action You’re doing your new behaviour – the new exercise or food regime, going for a walk instead of having a cigarette, whatever it may be.  This is the observable part of the whole making change process, but it’s important to remember its only one part of the process.  This part takes energy to stick with as we’re making conscious decisions to change previous ingrained behaviours and reprogramming neural pathways. Just as the more we repeat our habits the stronger those neural pathways become, the more we neglect old habits the weaker those pathways become.

Maintenance The basal ganglia is reprogrammed to your new behaviour, you’re less likely to relapse to old behaviours and more confident you can stick to your new habit.

Relapse or regression At any stage you may regress to the previous stage, or you may relapse from the Maintenance or Action stages.  This is not a failure, just a normal stage in the cycle of change.  Relapse or regression can happen in times of stress, when we feel pressured, tired or overwhelmed.  In these cases it’s easier to fall back into old familiar habits.

Understanding this process can help us be more prepared for habit change.

Making change easier

Consider these suggestions to help make change easier:

  • Do your homework – in the contemplation and preparation stages, think about what you want to change and why. I can’t stress enough that the reasons behind your habit change must resonate with you to give you a solid foundation for moving through the stages of change.
  • Focus on the behaviour not the outcome. We’ve just said you need to know your goal, as it provides the direction, and you need to know the motivation as it provides the impetus for change. But when it comes to achieving the goal, it is time to focus on the behaviour that will get you there.  Having the goal itself will not deliver you the results, it’s the consistent process of carrying out the actions you’ve identified and building a habit around them that is crucial.
  • Take small manageable steps and gradually build up. Have your overall goal in mind and break it down into a series of mini habits or behaviours that you can easily establish over time.  Picking easy changes eliminates perceptions of difficulty and helps to protect you from exhausting your prefrontal cortex with all that reasoning.  It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of making big, life changing transformations but it is less daunting to stick with small lifestyle changes that are easily repeatable. As the new habit is so easy and reasonable to do each day, you’ll be more consistent and it will lead you to your big goal.
  • Focus one small change at a time. It’s said you can handle up to 3 new habits at a time, but why make it more difficult on yourself? Choose one to commit to and once that habit becomes ingrained it’s time to add another.  Committing yourself to too many changes at once will leave you overwhelmed and it is easy to slip back into old habits.  If you’re having trouble deciding what that one thing should be, pick something that could be a keystone habit – that is, a behaviour or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line. For example, writing down your food could be something that kicks off more mindful eating, better food choices or more organised shopping and cooking habits.
  • Redirect your cravings. Interrupting your cue-routine-reward loop is tricky because not only is it your auto-pilot behaviour, your brain gets attached to the reward you feel at the end of the loop. So instead of resisting that craving for your reward, redirect it.  Keep your cue the same but change the routine and reap the reward.  For example, getting in the car has always been your cue to have a cigarette.  Instead, keep the cue (getting into your car) find something to change your routine, like have a bottle of water handy to rehydrate.  You’ve changed the routine and can feel good about the successful completion of your new action which helps to improve your health.
  • Build an environment that promotes good habits. If you’d like to be more positive, surround yourself with positive people.  If you’d like to eat healthier, ensure you’ve got healthy options around you. Building an environment that makes your habit easier means you’re more likely to succeed.
  • Be more mindful of your thoughts and actions. We know that up to 40% of our actions are on auto-pilot, but when we bring an awareness to our thoughts, we open up choices for ourselves like the choice to not believe or identify with the thought.  If we don’t have an awareness of our thoughts we have no choice but to fall into our old habit loops. Of course, being more conscious of your thoughts and actions will also take more energy or willpower.
  • When you slip up, get back on track. Missing your habit once has no measurable impact on your long-term progress.  Instead of having an all-or-nothing approach and giving up because you missed a day, remind yourself that things come up and it’s not the end of the world. Get back on track as soon as you can.  If you know you’re going to have disruptions make a plan to accommodate them. Remember also that a regression or relapse from one stage of change to the previous one is not a failure just a part of the process.

Follow these steps for more successful habit making, breaking and changing.