The key to letting go of unhealthy habits lies in understanding the psychological triggers that keep us going back to them. Once we understand this, we can develop a sustainable plan of action for changing them and start focusing on forming healthy habits.
Habits aren’t formed overnight. They’re the result of a series of decisions made over and over again. Breaking unhealthy habits—and building healthy habits in their place—takes just as much time, alongside the lion's share of accountability and commitment.
Making the Commitment to a Healthier Lifestyle
Picture a pile of sand with a marble placed on top of it. Then, gently nudge the marble and watch the groove that it forms down the side of the sand pile. Do it again—twice, maybe three times. Imagine this happening over and over again for 20 years.
Dr. Karen Koenig presents this analogy in her 2005 book, The Rules of "Normal" Eating. It is a fantastic representation of the repeated actions required to create a habit. Koenig's analogy imitates the myelination of the synaptic nerves. It demonstrates how habits form and how difficult they are to break by showing how hard it is to force that marble to go in any other direction and create a healthy pathway instead.Over time, new habits can form new pathways in the brain, much like how the marble can form new grooves with a little effort and time, too.
While the idea of breaking an unhealthy habit might make you feel like David taking on Goliath, it isn't impossible as long as you commit to becoming a healthier version of yourself. Decades of unhealthy choices are reversible. Just remember that David beat Goliath, and you can too.
Make It Easy to Build Positive Habits
Ditching unhealthy habits and replacing them with good ones is simple once you make it easy for yourself to do so. This might mean avoiding the trigger that causes you to engage in that habit.
Do you stress eat? The answer to breaking that habit might lie in removing temptation. Instead of heading for your fridge, try going for a walk. Or, if you are trying to quit smoking but you know that you smoke when you drink alcohol, you may want to avoid alcohol until you have kicked the smoking habit.
The key to making habit-building easy is to make it pleasurable and to be kind to yourself. If you hate running but you need to start leading a more active lifestyle, consider something else that will get you moving.
Work in small steps, and don’t allow yourself to fail. Most of all, congratulate yourself on your accomplishments without punishing yourself for your missteps. You won’t start by running a marathon, but you can start by putting your shoes on and taking a leisurely walk on the treadmill. You can pack your workout clothes with you, making it easy to stop at the gym on your way to, or back home from, work.
Work healthy habits into your day, so you don't have the opportunity to make an unhealthy choice. For example, you won’t break all your negative eating habits in a day, but you can make it easy to eat healthy food by preparing it in advance. You can also avoid unhealthy choices by going to the grocery store on a full stomach. Set yourself reminders to drink water. The fewer decisions that you need to make daily, the better your likelihood of making positive ones. You are going to have challenging days along your journey, but don’t let them overwhelm you. Create a positive relationship with the change that you are trying to make.
Stress as a Contributor to Habit-Forming & Consolidation
Studies show that stress makes us poor decision-makers. A rough week at work will not result in the best dietary choices. Neither will stressful challenges at home.
Typically, those who experience a stressful childhood are more likely to face sub-optimal health outcomes when they get older. Stress has been shown to contribute to poor decision making and impulsivity.
While stress can negatively affect our day-to-day decisions, that isn’t the only consequence of living a high-stress lifestyle. The physiological reaction of the body in dealing with stress includes a hormonal cascade that releases cortisol into our system. This results in adverse health effects within the body that take time and effort to correct.
A significant aspect of a healthy lifestyle is the ability to manage stress. Finding ways to do this that works for you is imperative. Meditating, developing a regular sleep routine, and regular exercise are all great ways to help reduce stress.
Using Your Personality Type to Change Your Habits
Once you’ve decided to improve your lifestyle by changing your habits, you’ll want to stack the cards in your favor as well as you can. This means understanding the obstacles that may stand in your way. Are you the type of person who can only handle changes in small, palatable steps? Or do you operate better when going through an entire lifestyle overhaul?
It may be easier to focus on one goal at a time and taking your transformation in small steps. If your endgame is to lose weight, you may want to focus on correcting your diet first and then moving onto increasing your physical activity. It’s easy to see positive results this way, without uprooting your entire lifestyle.
However, physically, mentally, and emotionally, we are all completely different people. Radical change works for some people but not for others. What’s important is to know yourself and your history and do what will garner the best, longest-lasting results.
Increased Neuroplasticity Makes it Easier to Break Habits
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout a person’s life; think back to the marble in the sand. Increased neuroplasticity helps an individual’s ability to make different choices. This ability includes forming healthier lifestyle habits.
Sleep and exercise both result in increased neuroplasticity and decreased stress. When the mind is set on a path of healthier lifestyle choices, it’s easier to stick to them instead of veering back into unhealthy ways. It’s also easier to tackle setbacks when the mind is operating at an optimal level.
When we’re considering ways to best form healthy habits and ditch the unhealthy ones, stress is the biggest obstacle. It is the foundation that sets up every decision that we make. Positive lifestyle changes can be made by living intentionally, reducing stress, and being dedicated to living our healthiest lives.