What’s one of the main things that stops people getting their fitness and health goals? In many cases, it’s a mental, emotional or physical addiction to an established behaviour pattern. Something like smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating, or eating the wrong things.
In every case there’s also a secondary gain from having that pattern – a buzz, the feeling of social belonging, the sense of easing some psychological or physical discomfort, etc.
That’s part of what makes it difficult to stop doing something that rationally you know is damaging to you.
Habits are a neurological pattern of activation which follow a specific sequence in your brain. If you really want to break a habit that is holding you back, using up your limited energy reserves, and reinforcing a negative self-image about your willpower, you just need a process to dismantle this sequence, and to consistently interrupt the pattern.
A Simple Process for Overcoming Bad Habits or Addictions
Step 1: Establish that this is something you really want to give up.
- Imagine for the last 3 months you hadn’t been doing this behaviour at all.
- Where would you be in relation to your goals if that was the case?
- Make a clear picture of yourself having not had the habit for the last 3 months. How does your body look different? How are your energy levels different? How do you feel psychologically different?
- Now answer the question: “Do I care that I’m not where the me in this picture is?”
- If you don’t really care, then stop reading now. You’re not ready to give this up.
Step 2: Find another way to fulfil its secondary gains
You’re still with me! Great. Now we need to understand what (often unconscious) secondary gains you’re getting from this habit. Every behaviour you have exists only because it’s connected to some internal subjective experience that you enjoy having. That is, there’s something you get, mentally and emotionally, from every behaviour, including this one.
No matter how much you think you hate having this addiction, somewhere in there is a neural link to a pleasurable, or somehow positive, intention. The way you uncover this is to ask yourself, “What do I get from doing this behaviour?” Usually the answer is some kind of feeling, like ‘relaxation’ or ‘comfort’ but it may be a more abstract concept like ‘time to myself.’
Now you need to find another way of achieving the same intent. There are many creative mental processes you can use to do this but the simplest way is to ask “how else can I achieve this,” or “what else can give me this feeling?” Let’s say going for a cigarette gives you time to yourself and social connectedness. Go out for a reflective cup of tea and fresh air next time instead of having a cigarette, and go find another place where you might be able to have a quick chat to a colleague rather than out on smoker’s alley.
Step 3: Throw it away, feel empowered
Now we’ve got the psychological pieces in place, we arrive at the most basic of all solutions. Whatever you are addicted to, go and find it in your desk drawer, kitchen cupboard, wherever, and throw it away.
The worst that can happen is that you’ve put a barrier between you and doing whatever it is again – i.e. going to the shop and buying it. At which point you’ll have to berate yourself and feel guilty going to buy it. In a best case scenario, you’ll never buy it again.
Next, focus on the feeling of energy you get from taking control over your life. Really focus on it. It’s in there somewhere, it will get stronger the more you reject the grip of that habit’s grubby little fingers. Think about how what you just did takes you closer to your goals and pat yourself on the back. You are learning to exert your will over your brain, something most people will never do.
Step 4: Change your future behaviour, now
Now, how to manage cravings?
First, think about this – what is a craving? It’s a feeling, often coupled with a mental picture of doing that behaviour. That picture is one of many potential futures. I want you to change that picture.
Edit the item you’re giving up out of the frame, and change the picture so you’re doing something else to fulfil the intent that you discovered in Step 2. What you’re doing here is re-mapping your neural pathways, interrupting the pattern to free yourself from a slavish unconscious desire to keep doing what you’ve always done.
You’re going to get cravings. You’re going to want to go back to your old ways. Your steely will may even break a few times. You may give in. That’s fine. You now have a choice. You can either go back to your habit and feed the same old patterns, or you can pick yourself up again and feel good about the decision you made to change your life. Never underestimate how difficult what you’re doing is, but keep rewarding yourself mentally every time you do something different.
Step 5: Plan a cheat sometimes, if you need it
With training clients who are on a strict nutritional program, I recommend a cheat meal where they eat anything they want, once every week or two weeks. Now, this advice doesn’t really apply to addictive and damaging substances like tobacco and alcohol because of the strong physical craving symptoms they create. But with food, it’s psychologically rewarding and useful to plan a cheat meal. 99% of the time people report feeling crappy after cheating, and henceforth experiencing increased motivation to stick to their diet plan.
So if changing a habit seems like a totally insurmountable task, just plan a cheat – plan when it will be and what exactly you’ll have, and keep your motivation up by using a crutch until you’re strong enough to walk without one.
Gradually you’ll learn that the addiction is just a mental process that starts with some cue in your environment or a thought in your head and up until now has culminated in the consumption of whatever your addictive substance is.
You’ll also start to feel a strange surge of mental and physical energy every time the desire process knocks on the door to your mind and you turn it away empty handed. You’ll start to feel more in control of your life, and you’ll begin to move towards your physical goals so fast it will surprise you.
Until next time, stay focused, stay healthy, stay strong!
Your friend and trainer,
What method or process have you found works best for you? Have you found some thought process or physical activity particularly useful in stopping or changing a habit? Please leave me a comment below!