All of us have habits. We speak of good habits and bad habits, but most often we associate habits with something negative. (Think smoking, watching too much TV, unhealthy snacking between meals, yelling at the kids...) The truth is that anything we do repeatedly—whether negative or positive, unhealthy or healthy—becomes a habit. Isn't it time to use positive, healthy habits to create the life you want? But how long does it take to break a habit?
The answer to this question varies and depends on who you ask. Breaking bad habits or forming healthy habits can depend on several elements and the length of time the behavior has been reinforced. Breaking a bad habit or forming a new, positive one is also greatly influenced by the person, environment, skill level, mindset, and if the person has a support network. Let's take a look at habit-forming propensities and the necessary ingredients of being successful.
Habits are like blossoms that turn to fruit. Wise gardeners know that pruning is essential for growing healthy plants that bear big fruit. My husband is one of those wise gardeners. He grows some amazing tomatoes in the summer that we enjoy all the way through November. One of the things he pays close attention to is cutting off unnecessary leaves and blossoms toward the end of the season. By pruning blossoms that wouldn't have enough time to develop into tomatoes, he redirects the growth to the existing tomatoes.
We can also head off bad habits by redirecting our attention and actions in a new direction that will serve us better.
Prune Early Sprouting Habits for Better Results
We got much larger tomatoes than we would have gotten without this minor pruning. If tomato plants are not pruned, the fruits are often smaller. We prune to encourage efficient growth. In a sense, this is how our brains work, too. Just like a gardener pruning undeveloped blossoms, the brain is always on the alert for underutilized circuitry. The brain pays attention to our actions and makes whatever we do repeatedly more valuable than what we do less frequently.
If we are not utilizing the brain's real estate, our magnificent brain views it as an opportunity to reroute the neural pathways (nipping blossoms) for more productive use (redirecting energy toward bigger tomatoes) for healthier brain fitness and effective use of its power. Unfortunately, sometimes the circuitry that is atrophying or gets pruned are the very things we would like to grow stronger, such as the habit of exercising regularly or being patient with our children. For instance, if we sit all day and rarely exercise, flabbiness replaces strength and muscle tone. However, even before that happens, the brain has already acquired the habit of inactivity. Whatever we're making a higher priority will get the attention of the brain, whether that's working hard or gaming on an X-box. See the rub?
How to Break Bad Habits and Why It's So Difficult
One of the reasons that habits are so hard to break is because when we practice and repeat something enough, the conscious part of the brain delegates these actions to the unconscious part of the brain. Why? Because the unconscious is far more powerful and efficient, processing millions of bits of information per second. (The unconscious mind is so keen that it knows something is going to happen a half second before your conscious mind is aware of it.)The amazing cortex (our higher, conscious brain) enables us to learn new things, transcend our past, solve problems, set goals and achieve them, or imagine a vision and implement it. (To learn how to visualize see: "How to Use Visualization to Get Amazing Results.) However, the cortex loves the new and the novel, and as soon as a thought, feeling, or action becomes habitual, the unconscious takes over and runs the show. It's like pushing the cruise control button when you're driving on the highway. You no longer have to think about it.
What if you could use the natural inclinations of your brain to transform your life? If you practice the following action until it's automatic, you'll do just that!
[Drum roll, please.]
Simple, right? Well, if it's so simple, then why don't more people do it? Why are so many people stuck with bad habits?
A Key Action to Form a New Habit
As humans, we have the propensity to keep our eye on what's wrong. This inclination exists because the brain makes two jobs important: 1) keeping us safe; and 2) finding better ways. Because we tend to look for what's wrong to achieve these objectives, we find fault instead of focusing on what we want. Thus, things don't change. The more we feel stuck, the more we complain: my spouse doesn't spend enough time with me; my kids are whiny and disrespectful; my boss doesn't appreciate my work; my friend is too busy; there's never enough money; and so on.
Let's take the first complaint: my spouse doesn't spend enough time with me. If we identify what we really want, it may be to spend quality time with our spouse at least three times a week. Now that we have identified what we want, it's clearer what actions we can take to change the outcome. Perhaps we leave work early one night a week and meet our sweetie for a special dinner; we rearrange our schedule to spend quality time with our spouse on a day they're home; and finally we might ask our spouse to go on a date night once a week and take turns planning it. Now, the unhappy feelings are replaced with happy feelings and the brain moves toward pleasure to create more of the same!
So, the next time you hear a negative thought run through your head or a complaint escape your lips, stop, breathe, and flip the complaint to what you want.
Once you know exactly what you want, ask yourself what action is needed to achieve that result, and do it! Repeat again and again. Now you have a habit worth keeping!
For more on brain fitness and the keys to brain health, see our series of "Building Healthy Brain Habits."