07 Dec 2020 • 6mins • Gemma Fisher

Incorporating helpful habits into your life - with Dr Emma Hepburn

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Incorporating helpful habits into your life
Looking to develop a new habit? Dr Emma Hepburn's got some tips

Habits determine what we do in everyday life. They’re like a well-travelled road in your brain that your thoughts and behaviours can drive down easily, without thinking. They’re automatic and familiar.

To change or develop new habits, first you need to have a stop sign that makes you pause before you take the usual route. Then you need to actively plan and choose another route.

The truth is that a new route is going to be more difficult to go down at first. Like finding your way around a new town, it requires more effort, attention and resources. Your brain wants to go back to the old path because it’s far easier and automatic. But the more you use the new route, the more automatic and easier it becomes. Until gradually it becomes more habitual to use this new path instead.

Building habits into your life is a dual process. On the one hand, you need to build barriers to prevent you from automatically slipping into old habits. At the same time, you also need to find ways to go down the more effortful new habit road frequently, so that it gradually becomes the easier and more automatic path your brain chooses as the default. The more you do it, the more your brain creates a mental shortcut to this behaviour and forms a new habit.

Here are a few tips to help create new habits - tackling the habits you want to change while building new ones:

Habits you want to change

Determine habits that you want to change
Identify specifically what it is you want to change. For example, manage impulse buying, mindlessly checking your phone or buying a coffee on the way to work. Changing any habit leaves a gap where that behaviour was. So don’t just think about what you don’t want to do, think about what you want to fill that gap with too. Instead of buying the coffee, you could fill that gap by making a coffee at home before leaving the house. Instead of checking your phone, you could pick up a book instead.

Put up stop signs and barriers in the environment
The more barriers you can put up to doing the habits we want to change, the less likely you are to do them. Walk a different way to avoid the coffee shop. Physically put your phone away from you. Take out all automatic buying options on websites. The more work you have to do to complete a behaviour, the less automatic it becomes. And the more opportunities you have to stop, change your mind and change the behaviour.

Become aware of what you’re doing
Habits happen automatically, requiring very little conscious thinking. This means we've bought that new top before we’ve even noticed or automatically picked up our phone without really being aware of it. Bringing attention to what we’re doing can help us decide if this is actually something we want to do, or not. For example, when you pick up your phone, regularly check in with yourself to help keep your attention on what you are doing and how it is making you feel. Check in with yourself before you press buy on that item. When out for a walk, pay attention to your environment and/or your body – do you actually want to buy that coffee?

Incorporating helpful habits into your life, with Dr Emma Hepburn
How to make a habit, well, habitual

Habits you want to build

Start extremely small
If you start small you are more likely to succeed. If you succeed you feel good. And if you feel good, you are far more likely to continue with a habit. So don’t aim big, aim tiny at first. Starting tiny means this habit is more likely to be positively reinforced, become automatic and then grow into a bigger habit. Aim to walk for two minutes, save a small amount every day, eat one item of fruit per day. This is not inconsequential, as success with the initial tiny change leads to habit growth in the longer term.

Don’t overwhelm your brain with too much new info
Forming new habits and change takes effort, so make it as easy as possible. Start with just one thing. Don’t overwhelm your brain with too much change at one time, or you’ll be more likely to want to give up and stick with what you’re used to.

Set up your environment so it makes it easy to repeat your desired habit
The less resources you need and the easier it is for you to complete your new habit the more likely you are to do it. Set up your coffee cup next to the kettle the night before. Pack your trainers in your bag so you can walk home. Keep a bottle of water in your bag. If your environment aids your new habit by making it easy, you are far more likely to do it.

Make the new habit as automatic as possible
The less barriers you have to the new habit and the more automatic you can make it, the more likely you are to do it. When it comes to money, you can even make some new habits completely automatic so you don’t really ever have to think about them after the initial effort of setting up. For example, asking your bank to round up amounts to go into a savings account or setting up a direct payment to a savings account.

Build new habits onto existing behaviours
Piggyback the new habit onto an existing behaviour. For example, when you finish work, transfer the saved coffee money into your savings account. If you want to drink more water, do this every time you go into a particular room. The trigger provided by the old behaviour means the new behaviour is more likely to happen.

Make it an integral part of your routine
Building new habits into a sequence means your brain stores these habits as part of a chunk of information. And your brain finds it much easier to do it automatically as it remembers the new habit as part of a sequence. For example, as part of your morning routine, when making your morning coffee, make another one as part of that sequence. You will then have this in hand when you walk past the coffee shop.

Recognise risk factors for slipping back into old habits
Stress is a frequent trigger of old habits: you have less resources, so your brain wants to take the easy route. Boredom is another common trigger. Recognise your risk factors and plan for these, where you can. Find ways to manage stress or alleviate boredom that mean you don’t slip back into automatic patterns. But remember to be kind to yourself if you have slip ups – it’s the way the human brain works and not a failure. You’re more likely to give up if you beat yourself up about it. Instead, problem solve a way around the risk factors to help maintain the new habits next time.