“Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Have you ever put in the time and effort to establish a new good habit, only for it to
inexplicably slip out of your life without you noticing?
Despite those habits that no amount of prodding, rewiring or chiselling can remove, we
have others we mistakenly believe to be firmly embedded into our panel of good habits,
that then evaporate faster than you can say “I don’t have any bad habits. I’m good at them
Ten years ago, I took up swimming to help manage my chronic neck pain.
To my delight, I discovered I loved it, really enjoying my weekly swim sessions, gliding up and down the pool following that never-ending black line and my neck pain melted away.
Then my work routine changed. It became harder to schedule my swimming and then one day I suddenly realised I hadn’t been for weeks.
When everything had been going so “swimmingly” why on earth did I stop doing something I enjoyed, that was also doing me good?
Habits are tricky because they can lull us into a false sense of security when we’re actively
achieving our goals.
We convince ourselves this is the new us, we can’t imagine ever going back to our old ways,
and are then surprised, disappointed and frustrated with ourselves when we do. Sigh.
Are we just inherently bad or weak?
No, it’s how we’re wired.
Why do we create habits?
Your brain has three primary objectives. To keep you safe, to help you find reward and to
always take the nearest mental short-cut to save on mental energy. We embed our habits in our capacious subconscious to free up the energy required for conscious planning,
organising and decision-making.
Which is fine when our habits serve us well. Not so great when they don’t. Getting stuck in
self-limiting beliefs, time-wasting habits and a fixed mindset can cost us dearly.
How do we break bad habits?
Changing habits is about superseding the old with a new way of doing that with practice and repetition become the default mental pathway of choice – for most of the time.
The memory traces of our old habits remain and if circumstances are right – such as when
we’re under extra pressure, exhausted, or stressed then Kapow! the old habit is reactivated, and we revert to the old way that the brain knows best.
Are creating new habits worth the effort?
Think about how good it feels when you’ve successfully established a new habit and you can see the desired outcome.
It’s what I call the dopamine cupcake effect. Every time we undertake an activity we find
inherently rewarding this triggers the brain’s reward circuitry leading to that nice little extra squirt of dopamine that makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the triggering
behaviour. There’s nothing more delicious than the sweet anticipation of that next
How to make positive habits easier to make and keep for the longer term
1. Start with knowing what you want and why.
Self-awareness is vital. Are you setting the goal because you really, really want to and can
see the cognitive, mental or physical advantage of doing so, or is it because you think you
should, or that others will expect it of you?
2. Be real to what’s achievable.
Deciding to get to the gym three times a week to get fit for the marathon you’ve just signed
up for is highly commendable. BUT if you’ve just had a baby, or just taken on a really big
work project that is going to demand a hug extra chunk of your time and energy, then
maybe now isn’t the ideal time.
Set yourself up for success by checking in on what’s possible and manageable in your
3. Start small.
Tiny habit change is best because it’s easier to initiate and sustain, and best still those small differences often have the biggest impact.
That’s why if changing up your diet, look to introduce one small thing, whether it’s adding in one extra serve of leafy green vegetables per meal, or substituting a healthier afternoon
The added bonus is when you feel the benefit of your new habit initiative, the ripple effect
makes it easier to introduce other healthy habits.
4. Expect setbacks
We’re human. Accept and expect lapses and remain vigilant to any potential habit breakers.
Such as slackening the reins just a teensy bit when you’ve been doing so well. Being
dopamine-seekers, it feels good to flirt with giving ourselves permission time off for good
behaviour but watch this doesn’t escalate you moving from lapse to relapse.
Being prepared for lapses helps to minimise their occurrence. And don’t get too hard on
yourself when they occur. Remember this is one small breach, not a prison breakout.
5. Keep it simple, fast, easy and enjoyable.
I’ve always been a great proponent of the KISS principle. Why make it harder than it needs
It was Charles Duhigg’s work that really put habits on the map with his simple explanation of how every habit requires a cue, pathway and reward. James Clear in his brilliant book
Atomic Habits shares the idea of habit stacking; using a pre-existing habit you’re happy with and slotting in the desired one inside.
For example, to make the weekly 9 am Monday morning meeting more productive and
effective for everyone, this could look like choosing to start at 9 am on the dot regardless of
who’s in the room, and adhering to a strict finish time of 9.25 am.
Approaching a new habit with enthusiasm can drastically increase your chance of success.
So, go for it, with gusto!
6. Get Support
A group setting can really boost the success of new habits. It’s motivating to share our
journey with others and to draw on group support if we’re struggling.
In one company I worked with to introduce mindfulness meditation as part of their health
and wellbeing program, teaching how to meditate was the easy part, the tough bit being
maintaining the practice after the program was finished.
What worked was the creation of an in-house online support group. Six months later there
was still a strong level of participation in the process.
7. Stay flexi to what’s needed.
With so much change disrupting our lives and work, it’s inevitable our needs change too.
Today’s habits may not be useful in the future. It’s OK to let go of what no longer serves,
Just like checking in with our performance, it’s worthwhile undertaking a regular habit
review to ask
Do my current habits continue to serve me well?
Is there something I need to let go of?
Is there a new habit that would serve me better?
Smarter, sharper thinking is all about working with our brain in the way it’s best designed.
Which is why understanding the slip ‘n slide of habits can help us navigate our complex and complicated lives.
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical doctor, board-certified lifestyle physician, speaker, trainer and author specialising in brain health and mental performance to enhance thriving our lives and work. www.drjennybrockis.com