If you take a step back and look at your typical behaviours throughout the day, what proportion of them do you think are intentional, and what proportion of them do you think are based on habit?
If I told you that 40 per cent of your actions were in fact based on non-conscious habits, would you be shocked? From the social media sites you check each morning, to the route you take to the office, or even which side of the bus you sit on each day, it can all stem from deep-rooted behaviours we’ve formed over many years.
But when it comes to fulfilling our potential how do we build healthy habits that actually stick?
The science of habit building
Before you start berating yourself for the many habits you may have, it’s important to understand that those non-conscious behaviours we carry out each day are part of the chemistry of our brains. And some are actually, quite good for us.
As explained in an interview with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, habits form when a goal-orientated decision is carried out so often, that it becomes an automatic behaviour.
“The brain can almost completely shut down… and this is a real advantage,” Duhigg explains, “it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
Perhaps he has a point. After all, we can all relate to the idea of driving to work having constructed an entire imaginary conversation with our boss. Or perhaps even parallel parking while planning the world-changing business pitch we’re going to present to Richard Branson one day.
As Duhigg says, once you’ve formed a habit, "you can do these complex behaviours without being mentally aware of it all".
Pretty handy, right?
When habits go wrong
The problem is, that while many of our habits are helping us multi-task, we all know that habits can be unhealthy, or even harmful and prevent us being the best versions of ourselves.
So if you suspect you’re more likely to smoke a cigarette after you’ve had a drink in the pub, perhaps it’s time to give the pub a miss for a few weeks. Or if you know you’re more likely to procrastinate on an important work project when you work from home, perhaps it’s time to book a desk at your local hot-desking club.
As Duhigg points out in his book, the concept of habit can lead to serious addictions and even worse, serious crimes - which has spurred a whole host of studies by scientists such as Reza Habib, who suggests there’s a significant neurological difference in the brains of people who carry out pathological and non-pathological habits.
I’m not saying that your morning biscuit habit is necessarily a pathological addition, but it shows why when you’re stuck in an unhealthy routine, perhaps it does come down to the unique way your brain is wired (but that’s a discussion for another day).
The important thing to remember is that it is possible to ditch your unhelpful habits and replace them with behaviours that will help you achieve your long-term life goals.
How to break existing bad habits
Identify the ‘if-then’
As researchers like Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology at New York University, have found, all sorts of factors come into play when we’re trying to break unhealthy behaviours.
In the study Planning to deliberate thoroughly, Gollwitzer and two fellow researchers found that people who identify at-risk situations ahead of time - that could trigger a bad habit - are better equipped to break that habit when using the 'if-then' plan, which involves putting more conscious decision-making into action.
Similarly, many psychologists have found that context plays a vital role in conditioning our behaviour. We’ve all heard of Pavlov’s dogs, right? That’s before we even consider factors such as emotions, personality, the time of the day or even the people we surround ourselves with, which can all play their part in how we form habits.
Tackle the cause
"In order to overcome bad habits, it’s important to recognise the underlying cause that triggers such negative behaviour," motivational speaker and international coach Leslie K. Saglio says.
"Everything from biting your nails and wasting time on the Internet to drinking every weekend can be triggered by stress and/or a deeper-rooted issue caused by your upbringing, your cultural or physical environment," she says.
"Avoid certain places or people that trigger the bad behaviour and surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live. It’s important to eliminate or modify the triggers and reinforce the new positive habit.
"With this increased awareness, you’ll be able to consciously make more lasting change."
Pinpoint the motivations behind your goals and the personal reasons you want to build these new habits into your life
So how else can we build habits that stick? Leslie shares her top tips:
1. Make your habits realistic and achievable
"When you start introducing new habits into your life, it’s important to remember baby steps," says Leslie, "Rome wasn’t built in a day!
"Take joy in even the smallest changes. So, if you’re trying to inject more energy into your career, this could be contributing two new ideas to work meetings every week. Then perhaps next month, introduce another small change. Soon, you’ll see how these tiny changes are all contributing towards positive change for a better life."
2. Make it personal
"When you make the decision to implement a new set of personal or professional goals for the year, identify your motivations and make it personal," says Leslie.
"When I decided to live a more conscious and holistic life over a decade ago, I drew on my own painful experience of losing my father and best friend to cancer and made a commitment in search for a more balanced and meaningful life.
"Ask yourself, how will you feel in yourself if you build a new set of habits into your life? Will you have more energy? Will you feel better able to cope with stress at work? Pinpoint the motivations behind your goals and the personal reasons you want to build these new habits into your life."
3. Start with your morning ritual
"Research says that the morning is one of the most effective times to implement new habits. Our minds are fresh, we haven’t yet been flooded with information from our various digital devices and this is your opportunity to set your intention for the day," says Leslie.
"Set yourself the challenge of avoiding your phone or laptop for an hour after you wake up, and implement the new habits that are going to help you reach your long-term goals. Perhaps that’s writing down what you want to achieve at work that day, meditating for twenty minutes, or maybe even going for a run before the distractions of the day start to kick in."
4. Practice affirmations
"Every day we produce as many as 50,000 thoughts, where our mindset governs our actions and our subconscious mind accepts whatever we choose to believe, which is why affirmations can be so powerful," explains Leslie.
"Recite positive affirmations every day to eliminate negative thoughts and choose to believe you can do the very thing you want to change. In time, you will build up your self-confidence and your new set of healthy habits will become a natural part of your day."
Life is about balance, so when you experience setbacks, remember to practice compassion towards yourself
5. Practice compassion
"If your goal or target this year is to start your working day an hour earlier, don’t beat yourself up if you sleep in late one day. Similarly, if you want to build in the good habit of eating more healthily, don’t get upset if you weaken and have a take-away one night. We are all human and life is about balance, so when you experience setbacks, remember to practice compassion towards yourself," says Leslie.
"Give yourself permission to evolve rather than change by being kind, gentle and loving with yourself. Each step in the right direction has an exponential effect on your health and well-being."
6. Visualise the end goal
"True and lasting fulfillment comes by continually visualising yourself moving closer towards your meaningful goals. When building a new habit, it’s also important to focus on the change you want to create within and the long-term change you will achieve, rather than the external, or perhaps short-lived gratification.
"Keep feeling into how your life will be different from forming this new habit and bring a smile to your face as you visualise yourself, with a new and healthy lifestyle. Whether it’s resisting the temptation to buy those cigarettes, waking up early, or purchasing healthy food, visualising the new-improved you will help those new, healthy habits stick for good."