25 February 2016

How to retrain the brain: Overcoming bad habits and replacing them with good ones

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Everyone has a bad habit, whether they’ll admit to it or not. Some of us smoke, some drink too much and others make themselves grand promises to exercise daily and instead are up to season 7 of Supernatural on Netflix.

But why do people do things they know aren’t healthy or supportive to their long term future?
Back in the dark ages of the late 1990’s I bought a CD set from Anthony Robbins, Personal Power. It went for 30 days. Every night for 30 days I sat down in my spare room/office and listened to Anthony Robbins extol the virtues of neuro linguistic programming.

By the end of the of programme I’d quit smoking, stopped drinking, given up junk food and was wombling around the suburb sweating to the Spice Girls in an effort to lose weight and get healthy.

A month after I finished the programme I was sitting on the couch, cigarette dangling from my lips with a glass of wine on the table, next to a packet of Doritos and a container of dip.

For the 30 odd days of the programme I was pumped. I saw changes. My life became more focused and I was doing whatever it took to bring about the changes I wanted. After the programme finished I maintained it for a short time, but then excuses started clawing their way back. I was tired. I’d worked all day, commuted 2 hours to work and 2 hours home. My favourite show was on the TV – no idea what that was anymore, but I couldn’t miss it – and I’d do it tomorrow.

By the end of 30 days tomorrow never came. Instead I went right back to where I was when I started. I’ve always wondered why? What about the goals I’d set during those days of listening to a compact disc no longer inspired me to keep going?

Bad habits have an ummm bad habit of derailing the best of intentions. Recently I was house sitting in Sydney. My commute from work went from 2 hours door-to-door to 40 minutes door-to –door and that included a 25 minute walk from the train Station to my house and waiting times for trains. When I first came to Sydney I set a bunch of good, healthy habits.

They lasted a couple of weeks before I discovered Menulog and the ease with which food could be ordered and delivered to the house. On the coast we have 2 options for Menulog and I’m not a huge fan of the restaurants so basically it’s a no go.

Strangely enough a diet of pizza, Chinese, Italian, and the Portuguese Chicken shop a block from my house left me thinner than I’d started, but I’m putting that down to daily walking.

I’ve never been great at replacing my bad habits, but I have found a few tips that work, when you apply them one at a time. Replacing your bad habits with good habits needs to be done one bad habit at a time. Trying to do them all at once is a recipe for disaster.

Stress is a major contributor to bad habits. My position is fairly stressful. I live and die by deadlines. Everything seems to be due tomorrow and that doesn’t even acknowledge the random tasks I inherit daily. In my past life the best way to unwind was to sit down and have a glass of wine. I did it every night at one stage. It didn’t really do much to unwind the stress, but it did make me feel very grown up.

As the amount of wine went from one glass to two or three I started to realise that apart from helping my weight to expand it wasn’t do much for me in any other way.

I bought a rusty old exercise bike. The seat hurts and the last time I used it a peddle shot off across the patio and landed in the pool. But it doesn’t matter. I downloaded an exercise training app, and began replacing the nightly wine with a nightly 20 minute exercise bike ride.

By the end of the first month I’d saved $250 on wine and lost 4 kilos. I rarely drink now, and never at home on my own. Instead, when I feel stressed I ride that exercise bike like the hordes of Hades are on my tail and invent new ways to hunt down whoever invented the exercise bike.

Boredom is another useful trigger when looking at starting a life-long bad habit. I often used to complain about being bored. Bad habits give us a way to relieve the boredom and feel like we’re doing something, even if it’s not productive.

The best way to replace a boredom related bad habit is to not be bored anymore. I potter about gardening, weeding things, pruning things, watering things. I like watching seeds grow into plants and plants flower. I recently decided that I want to grow things I can eat, so I’m attempting to grow a Chilli plant from seed. I don’t eat Chilli, but it's the thought that counts.

The one thing I have learned over the years of bad habits is you don’t lose them, no matter how much you want to. If you stop a bad habit you end up with spare time, which only increases your chances of picking the habit up again. Instead, you need to replace it.

  • I replaced a nightly glass or three of wine with a medieval torture device of an exercise bike;
  • I replaced lying around complaining there’s nothing on television with wandering around the garden, in a big hat, chopping everything in sight and growing plants from seeds;
  • I replaced vague and empty self-promises with doing one “thing” each day to bring me closer to achieving a very specific goal I’ve had in mind since I was a child; and
  • I replaced removing bad habits instead choosing to replace them with something else.

So, in closing, here are few helpful tips I’ve found work well when trying to break a bad habit:

Chose a substitute habit – replace anything with a download app with an overly enthusiastic American woman telling you how fantastic you are as you try to keep both pedals on an exercise bike

Change your routine – A friend of mine quit smoking several years ago. She had a very clear outcome in mind that forbade her from smoking. So she went through her house and threw out every single thing that triggered her need for a cigarette. She also started to do “other things,” in danger times. Morning tea, she walked around the block. Lunch, she ate in a food court where smoking was banned. It was the little changes she made to her routine and the various triggers that gave her the ability to reach her goal of living without cigarettes and also helped her achieve the end goal too.

Work in a group – boredom has trouble hanging around when you’re working with a friend on setting a new lifestyle in stone. Join a group of people who have the same goal. Join a writing group if your plan is to be a novelist when you ‘grow up.’ Join a Bonsai group if you want to grow miniature tress. For every hobby you want there’s bound to be at least one or two people who can join you. Not only do you get to make some new friends – maybe – but it’s harder to let yourself down when others are cheering you on.

Visualisation – I know it’s had a lot of coverage since the documentary The Secret hit the airwaves, but visualisation has been around forever. I remember as someone in my early teens being given a book about visualisation by my Aunt. Thinking about succeeding isn’t visualisation though. It takes effort and it takes having faith in yourself to follow the nudges and hints you get. Still, even if you’re a bit hesitant visualisation can really lift your energy, at least for a while. Do it often and regularly and you’ll be surprised at the changes.

You may well fall over, but get up again – all those people you read about who are overnight successes have one thing in common. They’re not overnight successes at all. They worked hard, fell over, got back up and tried again. The popular story of Thomas Edison always sticks out for me. When asked how he felt that he had failed 10,000 to invent the light globe, Edison famously replied;

I have not failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Whatever the bad habit you’re trying to replace know that you don’t need to reinvent yourself. You are doing well, just as you are. All you are doing is tweaking the direction of your life course. Give yourself a break from time to time.

Changing a bad habit to a good one takes time, diligence and effort. The good news though, is what else are we going to do with our time, watch Netflix?

Mike Cullen has recently returned to Akolade after a period as the conference producer for one of Australia's leading economic think tanks. Mike began working in the conference industry in 2007 after looking for a career change from the high pressured world of inbound customer service.

Mike has worked for some of the most well-known conference and media companies in the B2B space and in his spare time is working on his first novel in a planned Epic Fantasy trilogy. Mike’s first published work will be the short story Seeds of Eden, in the Sproutlings Anthology scheduled for release in March 2016.

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