The Heisenberg Principle: Breaking Bad Habits

Humans develop habits. It’s naturally built into us. Our knowledge of earliest human behaviour sees our ancestors from thousands of years ago making rituals, building routines and developing habits.

It’s how we learned to survive and how we continue to survive on a daily basis.

The term habit can refer to many different behavioural patterns, from your job, to hobbies, to daily tasks. And they aren’t all necessarily bad either.

These patterns are learned and refined by the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which uses them like a programmed code as you repeat them over and over again.

Now the word habit tends to have bad connotations, but of course we all have good habits too: positive routines within our days that we repeat. It’s the bad habits that are the problem: those negative cycles we repeat and can’t seem to get away from.

You might have decided that a particular behaviour of yours is “bad” for many reasons, it could be negatively affecting your relationships, your mindset, your fitness or your bank account. Whichever it is, deciding you want to make the change is the first hurdle.

The word habit is derived from the full term: Habit Loop.

In order to break a bad habit you need to first understand and identify the concept of a habit loop.

A habit loop is made of three parts.

Trigger ➡️ Routine ➡️ Reward

  1. Trigger: This is the stimulus which begins the pattern. It could be conscious or unconscious. The prompt is recognised by the brain to begin the action sequence.

  2. Routine: This is the set of actions that then take place.

  3. Reward: This is whatever you gain from performing/completing the loop: satisfaction, knowledge or money for example.

Any habit can be broken down into these sections, for example your bedtime routine:

  1. Trigger: This could be the time, the end of a programme, the sun going down, or simply realising you are tired.

  2. Routine: Brushing your teeth and changing for bed.

  3. Reward: You can go to sleep knowing that you are comfortable and clean.

The most difficult part of analysing a habit in this way is being honest with yourself about what the trigger is. Are you telling yourself it’s mid-afternoon hunger when really it’s boredom? Truthful identification is key.

The thing about breaking a bad habit is that you can’t just say “oh well, I won’t do that anymore then” -you’re setting yourself up to fail.

Your brain actually feeds off of the completion of a habit loop and resisting those impulses are the reason people cheat on their diets so often!

Breaking a bad habit requires consistency and hard work.

The secret to breaking a habit loop?

Successfully identify the trigger, and consciously change the routine.

If you understand the trigger that sets of the behaviours you want to avoid, you need to be aware of them happening and then replace the actions that follow.

In the beginning this will require a lot of consciousness, but soon enough your brain will re-learn the new habit in the same way it haven’t attached to the old one.

Let’s give an example:

You’ve been going to the pub every Friday but it’s having an affect on your weight, how you’re sleeping, your productivity the next day, and most importantly, your bank balance. You decide it’s time for a change (this probably isn’t going to be easy as there will be lots of peer pressure to fight too- make sure you are surrounded by people who support you and the process will be a lot easier.)

Firstly, identify the trigger. In this case it would be finishing our shift on Friday afternoon.

Next, decide what new behaviours will replace the ritual; the pub, in this case. Something that will give you satisfaction and that is sustainable for the foreseeable future. Hitting the gym, cooking a delicious dinner from scratch, finding a fitness class, or going for an evening kick-about with your friends.

Finally, acknowledge the reward. Allow yourself to feel satisfied/happy/proud so that his new habit becomes a positive association in your brain.

From there, the tough part is repeating it every time you’re faced with that trigger.

The loop can’t be deleted, but it can be altered, and honestly, it can take months for a new habit to become second nature again.

Of course it is possible to start a new habit. Walking to work, taking the stairs, anything that is going to make a positive impact on you. Although, unless this habit is coming from a reason that resonates with you, it isn’t likely to last long. Your motivation for this needs to be as genuine as for breaking a habit, or it really is only going to last a few weeks to be honest.

Persevere and it will get easier.

Anything to do with your fitness or your eating is classed as a habit, which is why you’re so often told in this industry that “there’s no quick fix.” You’ve got to ingrain this new way of life into you for the long run, and that’s the reason most people fail their diets. Lack of motivation and sustainability.

If you’d like some help identifying habits of your own that might be affecting your fitness progress, get in touch and we’ll see what I might be able to do for you!

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