Habits How to adopt a good habit

Changing habits: the best tips for new behavior patterns

Get rid of bad habits, develop good habits - that's how it works

The power of habit, it is said. In fact, it's hard to give up old habits like snacking, smoking, or drinking alcohol. Because behind this is usually the desire to meet important needs. Nevertheless, we can shed bad habits and train ourselves new ones - if we really want to. All we have to do is reprogram our brain.

What are habits and how do they arise?

Habits are emotional or mental actions, but also behaviors that we performed at some point for the first time and have practiced again and again since then. As a rule, these actions become automatisms that we then no longer consciously think about. Rather, these processes take place unconsciously. Rituals that accompany us every day are also part of our habits.

The types of habits

Psychologists divide habits into three categories, namely:

  • Thinking habits
  • Emotional habits
  • Behavioral habits

The thinking habits

Thinking habits include, for example:

  • how to evaluate something (whether good or bad: moral thinking)
  • whether something is considered untidy
  • whether you consider punctuality to be important
  • how to think about yourself (self-image)
  • what one thinks of others (stereotyping)
  • whether a person is more pessimistic or optimistic
  • how we assess our own skills or knowledge

The emotional habits

According to psychologists, emotional habits are automated actions that reflect our emotions. This includes, for example:

  • whether you get annoyed quickly and react accordingly
  • whether one feels easily offended or not
  • in which situations one is anxious
  • when to be nervous, insecure or reluctant
  • whether or not it makes you feel inferior when you make a mistake

The behavioral habits

Behavioral habits are the habits that we are most likely to become aware of because they are clearly noticeable in our behavior. Above all, bad habits - especially addictions like in the case of addictions - are quickly noticed. This includes, for example, the habit:

  • a lot to drink
  • to smoke
  • too little sleep
  • eating too much
  • consuming too much fast food and sugar
  • biting your nails
  • to use the smartphone very often
  • using the internet (social media) too often
  • Gambling too much or playing video games (gambling addiction)
  • to consume other drugs
  • to be neat
  • whether you cross your legs while sitting
  • how intensely you season (for example salt)
  • how often to chew before swallowing a bite
  • how to drink your coffee (black, white, with sugar, etc.)
  • Rituals: reading to the children, brushing teeth, etc.
Combination of emotional habit and behavioral habit

In some cases, habits can be combinations of an emotional habit and a behavioral habit. This applies, for example, to nervous behaviors, such as biting your nails, cracking your fingers or when someone plays with their hair while talking. Even if you bob your foot during a lecture, it is due to an emotional habit that manifests itself in a behavioral habit. In these cases, nervousness, fear, insecurity and shyness are particularly often behind the behavioral habits.

How do habits work? - The three components and the habit loop

A habit always follows the same pattern. According to the American science journalist Charles Duhigg, the individual elements - three in number - form the so-called habitual loop. This consists of the triggering stimulus, the routine action and the subsequent reward.

The automated habit: triggering stimulus initiates a habit loop

At the beginning of the behavior that has become a habit, there is the triggering stimulus that the brain unconsciously looks for. This can be a certain everyday situation, for example the end of the day, which announces that everything is done and now the time for relaxation has come. But the stimulus can also be a certain mood that sets the habit loop in motion. When you're nervous, stressed, anxious, or worried, it's easier for people to follow bad habits.

At some point you have decided on a fixed habitual behavior

At some point, before behavior has become a habit, you have to determine what behavior you will show in this particular situation. Do you begin to relax by opening the bag of chips, the bottle of wine, the bar of chocolate or the beer after work? Maybe with several of these goodies at the same time?

The automated habit: the real act

If there is a specific mood or situation, a fixed habit automatically leads to routine action, such as reaching for the cigarette, a glass of wine or the chips, without us consciously thinking about it.

The automated habit: the reward ends the habit loop

The third part of the habit loop is the reward. The behavior that has become routine, such as smoking, snacking or drinking, sets the human reward system in motion. It comes to the release of relaxation-promoting and mood-enhancing substances that increase our well-being. We feel happier, more relaxed, more relaxed. This completes the habit loop, i.e. the same cycle that is always the same.

What happens with a habit on a neurobiological level?

Basal ganglia determine what actions we perform and what not

The place in our brain where the habit loop takes place is in the basal ganglia. Hence, these parts of the brain are also known as the habit center. These are accumulations of gray matter in the brain that consist of strongly networked associations of nerve cells. The basal ganglia are also called gray nuclei. They are located in both the left and right brain hemispheres. The basal ganglia initiate physical and cognitive processes, so they determine which actions we carry out in the next moment and which we omit.

When rewarded, happiness hormones are released in the basal ganglia

When the habit loop has been set in motion and the reward sets in, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in part of the basal ganglia, the nucleus accumbens, which we then perceive in the form of feelings of happiness and relaxation.

Once the habit loop is activated, we can no longer control it at will

If an action develops into a habit through repeated repetition, this action is stored in all its details in the basal ganglia and automatically called up again in the situation with the triggering stimulus. This process has been internalized in such a way that - while it is running - it can no longer be influenced by our will. Only when we consciously decide to change the habit can we stop and rewrite the automatically running program in the basal ganglia. Then it is possible for us to break a bad habit and adopt a good one.

The brain saves a lot of energy through habits

In experiments with rats, it was found that when a habit loop occurs, there is no activity in the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and conscious decision-making. This means that our brain hardly has to do anything when we are used to doing things and therefore saves a lot of energy.

Useful versus harmful habits

The sense of useful habits

Habit and routine take up a large part of a person's life. We save energy because we do not have to make every decision consciously in everyday life and many actions are automated. When we unlock our car out of habit, open the door, sit down, put the key in the ignition and start the engine, our brain hardly needs to strain. Because these processes have long since passed into the subconscious through the many repetitions and are carried out automatically - without the need for any noteworthy brain performance in the form of reflection.

Habits protect the brain from overload

These habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving make people so efficient that, thanks to the "autopilot", they can direct their thoughts to essential decisions that are not routine and have to be made consciously. With automatisms, nature prevents the human brain from being constantly overloaded by constantly dealing with the management of incidental matters.

The only problem is that this automatism cannot differentiate between good, i.e. useful habits, and habits that are harmful to us. The habit loop is exactly the same in both cases.

Bad habits harm us in the long run

Good habits make sense for people and in many cases protect them from being overburdened. But there are also habits that cause permanent damage to us and our health: bad habits. These can manifest themselves, for example, in addictive behavior such as excessive smoking, overeating, overeating fast food or frequent consumption of alcohol. Of course, these behaviors are detrimental to health in the long run.

But many bad habits also have positive effects

Despite the destructive effects of many bad habits, they also have their positive effects. Example: the habitual glass of wine in the evening. When we drink alcohol, we usually try to fulfill certain longings and needs. This includes:

  • the need to relax
  • the need to flee (for example from responsibility, routine or duties)
  • the longing for connection with others (sense of community)
  • forgetting about fears, worries and problems
  • the feeling of letting go emotionally

In addition to the harmful effects of alcohol, when we drink we perceive a clear relaxation, an emotional release. This also applies to smoking or eating fast food. Even the chocolate in the evening releases feelings of happiness in us. According to research, the actual feeling of being drunk is not at the top of the list of motivation.

However, these positive effects are only temporary. In the long run, these bad habits bother us and not infrequently they make us sick - especially when they are exercised excessively.

Habits affect all of our lives

“The power of habit” or “the human being is creature of habit” is what it is always said. And indeed: the power of habit on our lives is enormous. Habits, both good and bad, can greatly affect:

  • our health
  • our financial situation
  • our performance and productivity on the job
  • our happiness and our joie de vivre
  • our relationships
  • our sex life
  • our spiritual development
  • our self-actualization

Ultimately, habits can affect any area of ​​life - or not if you make a conscious decision to identify and break habits.

How big is the part of habits in our actions?

In a 2006 study, researchers found that habits account for more than 40 percent of our actions. This means that almost half of our actions take place as a habitual, unconscious routine in autopilot mode, so they are not controlled by our conscious will, i.e. a conscious decision made.

When do habits arise in our life?

A multitude of habits are already established in the first ten years of our life. For example, which pant leg we slip into first, how often we chew a bite before we swallow it, or how we brush our teeth. But other habits only develop later. Basically, we can adopt new habits at any time - especially when a new situation arises in our life to which we have to respond with appropriate behavior. However, if we really want to, we can also abandon familiar behavior and adopt new habits at any time.

Why it's so hard to change habits

Neuroscientists confirm what we have always known: Hardly anything is as difficult for the brain as shedding cherished habits. Because the more often we repeat routine behaviors, the more firmly they are stored in the brain and linked to the triggering stimuli. Therefore, one should bring the following qualities with you to shed old habits:

  • a great will to break the habit
  • a lot of perseverance and patience
  • a high tolerance for frustration

Unfamiliar feeling prevents success in getting rid of a bad habit

So it is the automated pattern of a habit that makes it so difficult for us to get rid of habits and train ourselves with new ones. This also includes the happiness-promoting substances that our reward system pours out when we perform the usual action. Many people who try to break a habit fail in the first phase. This is characterized by the fact that the new behavior feels strange and uncomfortable. If the cigarette or chocolate is suddenly missing, it feels kind of strange, not right. Many people cannot stand this feeling and then fall back into their usual behavior.

Reprogramming the Brain: How to Get Rid of Bad Habits

By knowing how to work this habit loop pattern, it is possible to break bad habits and develop new, more beneficial ones. It is important to intervene briefly in the work of the basal ganglia and to take control here. The saved pattern of the habit must be overwritten with a new pattern, which in turn is stored in the basal ganglia (the habit center). This new pattern then becomes just as powerful and habitual as the old one.

Change habits - identify motives for habitual behavior

Behavioral change psychologists and coaches emphasize the importance of looking at the motivation behind a bad habit that you want to get rid of. Why do you smoke, for example? Do you smoke because it tastes good? To treat yourself to some relaxation? But maybe also to get the opportunity to talk to other people? There are a variety of reasons that led to a bad habit. Everyone can see for themselves which source could have led to their respective vice.

Example of a bad habit and the motive for it

Charles Duhigg, the science writer and author of The Power of Habit, had a habit of eating a donut every afternoon. In his introspection, it was finally found that the habit that was making him gain weight wasn't really about the donut itself. Rather, he went to the cafeteria to grant his desire for socializing and to talk to a few colleagues. When he had deciphered and understood this need, he was able to get rid of his bad habit and from then on looked for a relaxed conversation with colleagues for about 10 minutes at that time in the afternoon.

Generating good feelings is behind a bad habit

As a rule, the fulfillment of certain longings and needs is behind a bad habit or - as they say colloquially - the vice. One study asked people why they jog so often. The majority answered this question by saying that they would feel so good afterwards. Others reported a feeling of triumph, the feeling of happiness that they had achieved and achieved something.

A motive for the habit of snacking or nibbling nuts can also be that you take a break and thus time for yourself. But, according to psychologists, you don't have to snack, drink or smoke to meet these deeper needs. Alternative strategies can also be used to meet them.

Change habits - define a new triggering stimulus

In order to break the habit loop, it is necessary to couple the desired new behavior to a solid triggering stimulus. For example, if you decide to jog regularly from now on, you should think of an obvious hint that reminds you to jog. According to the science author Charles Duhigg, you could put on your jogging shoes as soon as you get up or put your sweatpants close to the bed.This stimulus then reminds you that you really want to implement this new behavior and get the habit loop going.

Change habits - the new behavior pattern must be linked to a reward

Another important element is that the new desired behavior is associated with a reward. This makes you more motivated to implement and maintain this behavior. It is not enough to tell yourself when you lose weight that it will eventually make you leaner. This goal is not within reach, too far away. Rather, the reward must be relatively timely and specific. You can, for example, reward yourself with a nice, healthy breakfast or - after jogging several times, for example after the tenth time - with a massage or a cultural event. However, many people already see the good body feeling after exercise as a reward.

The brain must be able to count on the reward

When reprogramming the brain into a good habit, it is important that it learns and that it is rewarded for its new behavior. Only when the reward is firmly integrated into the habit loop does the brain begin to understand that it can count on the reward and goes along with the change. Then the act can be automated and become a habit. Then the new behavior is no longer difficult, but becomes normal.

Shedding bad habits - when is the right time to do so?

Vacation is the best time to get rid of bad habits

Experts recommend choosing the right time to break an old habit. There are situations that are better suited to breaking habitual loops than others. A relaxed atmosphere plays an important role in whether someone will achieve their intended goal. Studies have shown that people who want to quit smoking are more successful when they tackle this endeavor while on vacation. Experts see the explanation for this in the fact that people, when they leave their familiar surroundings, can no longer fall back on their usual triggering stimuli and situational contexts. Everything is different in a foreign country, which means that routines can be broken more easily.

Relaxation increases the chance of success in breaking bad habits

The lower stress factor on vacation also plays a role in successfully breaking bad habits. A study by the University of Bochum has shown that a high level of stress reduces our self-determination, our will is less pronounced. We also cannot think so purposefully under increased stress.

"Teachable Moments" - life crises can help to break bad habits

Psychologists have observed that under certain conditions, for example in difficult life situations, people are particularly willing to change. Life crises such as a separation, the loss of a loved one, a serious illness or a change of job can make it easier for a person to let go of a bad habit (“teachable moments”). In such difficult situations it seems particularly easy for the brain to rewrite an existing program.

Change Bad Habits - Belief in yourself is powerful force

Research has found that people who firmly believe that they can get rid of their bad habits are more successful at changing habits than people who do not have this strong belief in themselves. Faith actually moves mountains in this case. In this context, psychologists also speak of the expectation of self-efficacy. So if you assume you can adopt a new, more favorable habit, you have a better chance of success than if you doubt yourself.

Changing bad habits in a group is easier

Humans are by nature a social being, which is why it is not surprising that changing behavior in a group of like-minded people is easier than having to fight with one's weaker self. Group therapies, for example groups to combat alcohol addiction, make use of this fact. Psychologists speak here of the phenomenon of social contagion. This means that our behavior is influenced by other people in our environment - both in a positive and in a negative sense. So if you want to do more sport or eat healthier, you should look for like-minded people who are pursuing the same goal.

Change bad habits - formulate clear milestones

The renowned health manager Markus Hornig advises people who want to get rid of a bad habit to formulate and write down clear goals. In doing so, you should state the desired goal as briefly and precisely as possible. You should also set a precise date for reaching the goal, for example: “I would like to be able to jog three times a week by three months.” Also set the smaller milestones precisely and don't forget to identify yourself for each one Reward milestone.

Discard bad habits - take possible obstacles into account in advance

Anyone who wants to develop a new habit should be aware that obstacles will arise along the way. According to researchers, one should not approach behavior change with a naive positive attitude, but with a realistic and skeptical one. According to research, a realistic assessment of the project, in which possible obstacles are planned in advance, increases the chances of success. So you can think about beforehand what to do in such a case of weakness, such as how to deal with a setback.

Change bad habits - think about penalties for non-compliance with the new behavior

Markus Hornig even goes so far and suggests that one should - in order to maintain discipline in the event of a change in behavior - prepare a kind of sanction in advance, with the help of which one should punish potential misconduct. He advises you to make an internal contract with yourself and to think of a “punishment” as a deterrent if you are at risk of failure. In his opinion, this can be, for example, that you have to go without your favorite show for a week, clean the cars for colleagues or serve your partner for a weekend.

Getting rid of bad habits - accepting setbacks

The fact that one reacts with a sanction against oneself in the event of failure does not imply that one shouldn't even give in and show a moment of weakness in between. On the contrary: these moments of weakness will certainly come. It is then important to know what you are doing in this situation, whether you are giving in or looking for an alternative behavior. If you have become weak, you should accept this setback, see it as human and continue on the path you have chosen.

Change habits step by step - beware of prohibitions

Prohibitions such as: "I am currently forbidden from sweets" are of little use, because you do not opt ​​for snacking rationally, but rather emotionally, and habitual processes are automated without us being able to influence them willingly. Before exposing yourself to absolute prohibitions, it is better to limit the amount of sweets and take smaller steps towards the goal.

Set small intermediate goals - increase the chances of success for establishing new habits

One way to get rid of the bad habit of not snacking in small steps, for example, would be to make a resolution to initially only eat a small portion of chocolate every other day. Then you could further reduce it to two days a week. The advantage of this gradual weaning from the old behavior is that you don't try to make an instant 180-degree turn, which requires a tremendous effort.

The brain needs "training" in the new, good habit

Rather, by pursuing smaller goals, you only implement what you are able to achieve, what does not overwhelm you. Even if you are skeptical that the measure is not enough - at the beginning of the behavior change it is mainly about leaving the old path and practicing a new behavior that can be modified over time and eventually become the new, good one Habit leads.

Shedding bad habits - documenting successes

If you want to overcome a bad habit, it makes sense to document your small successes - also to reward yourself at the appropriate time. So you can record in a list when you ran how many kilometers or on which day you did a certain sports program for how long. This also gives you an overview of how far advanced the process of creating a new habit is.

Change habits - Motivation is high when a personal reason for behavior change has been found

Motivational speakers for the instant influence strategy, for example, advise imagining the wish, i.e. the new habit, in advance of the change. How do you benefit from it? What is your own true inner reason for adopting the new habit? What are the benefits for your life, your family, your job, your free time? How would the people around you take it?

According to the trainers of Instant Influence, the motivation for a cause is always particularly high when you find a very personal reason inside yourself why you should change your behavior. When the change is imposed on you from the outside, for example in the form of “Smoking is unhealthy. You have to stop ”, then that is an understandable reason, but not the very own, personal reason that ultimately drives people to adopt the new habit.

Practical approach to changing a bad habit

If you want to break a bad habit, you can proceed according to the following pattern and clarify the following facts or questions:

  • Naming the habit (e.g. smoking)
  • recognize the trigger: why am I doing this? (I'm tired?)
  • analyze the reward effect (what does the behavior give me? does it relax me?)
  • looking for alternative rewards (alternative relaxation options)
  • Experiment with new, cheaper behaviors and rewards
  • Establishing a new, functioning behavior
  • repeated practice of the new, good habit

Changing Bad Habits: Finding Alternative Reward Strategies

In the specific case of Charles Duhigg and his afternoon donut, the science writer found that the donut itself was not the reason for going to the cafeteria. Rather, he was attracted by the opportunity to take a break from work to exchange ideas with others. He then experimented with various alternative reward strategies such as a 15-minute walk, buying an apple that he was eating at the time, and visiting a few colleagues at the usual donut time.

Instead of reaching for the bag of chips, with which you can relax well, you can just as easily complete relaxation training such as meditation, yoga or autogenic training, take a bath, go for an evening walk, listen to nice music or put up candles, which for cosiness to care. Once you have found a new behavior that is also linked to a reward (aromatic tea instead of a glass of wine), the behavior is internalized through repeated repetition and becomes a fixed habit. This then runs automatically when the trigger stimulates, i.e. in the specific situation or mood.

How long does it take to develop a new habit?

According to studies, it usually takes up to 10 weeks for a new habit to become firmly established, i.e. for it to become part of the flesh and blood. Brain researchers estimate that you have to repeat a behavior regularly 30 to 60 times before it develops into a habit - depending on the level of difficulty. During this time, a conscious decision, such as jogging regularly, becomes an automated action that enters the subconscious and is routinely called up. After 10 weeks you don't have to motivate yourself anymore - you just want to carry out this action or behavior change because it has become an inner need.

Change habits with Bach flowers

Bach flowers offer gentle help in changing habits. Working with the flower essences promotes the examination of his behavioral patterns, the awareness of bad habits and, through self-awareness, the willingness and motivation to establish good habits. Which Bach flowers are suitable for this depends entirely on your own emotional state. Perhaps the most important Bach flower for changing habits is walnut. She is often referred to as a helper to “make the breakthrough”. It is particularly suitable for people who have a clear vision of their new habits. However, if you are not yet sure which habits you want to cultivate, you can support the discovery process with Wild Oat.

Often you are so stuck in your routines that you don't question their meaning and don't realize when they are harmful. Those who tend towards automated reactions, do not make progress and do not learn from the consequences of bad habits can use the Bach flower Chestnut Bud, which is also known as a "habit breaker". The aim is to focus more attention on the now and to adapt one's actions more to the actual requirements of reality.

When choosing Bach flowers, it is important to realize the personal background of the habits to be transformed. If it is a concrete fear that lies behind the habit, the Bach flower mimulus fits. If there is a lack of self-worth, Larch is suitable. If bad habits are played down or maintained in order to suppress worries, the Bach flower Agrimony makes sense. If habits can be traced back to indifference and a lack of zest for life, Wild Rose is recommended.

In order to determine the best remedies for yourself, all 38 Bach flowers should therefore be studied. These include Bach flowers for mood disorders that have become a habit or reveal themselves as a blockage when changing habits - the best examples are negative emotions such as anger, which are addressed by the Bach flower Holly, as well as impatience and hectic pace, which are associated with the Bach Flower Impatiens. So everyone can make their own individual Bach flower mixture to optimize their habits.