Habits drive a huge portion of our daily activities, from small to large. If you pay attention, you might find that you brush your teeth the same way every day, or go through the same actions every day when you get home from work. These are the ingrained behaviours that let us live a lot of our lives on autopilot, and leave our brains free for thinking about important things.
While these automatic behaviours save us a lot of time and mental effort, not all habits are helpful. I used to head straight for a snack when I got home from work, even if I wasn’t actually hungry. Not super useful! But with a change in mindset, we can turn our less-useful habits into more useful healthy habits.
It’s very difficult to change a habit without being aware of what’s going on. Mindfulness – simply being aware of what is happening – is key to creating this change. Mindfulness is most helpful when we apply it in layers.
What do you want to change
Identifying the less-helpful habit makes it much easier to change it. You might start this process by thinking about an average day for you. What do you normally do during your day? What actions happen when you get up, go to work, while you’re at work, when you get home, when you go to bed?
Most people can identify at least a few actions they take as they go through a normal day. (If you struggle to come up with a list, simply pick a day and pay attention to what you do as you go through your day as normal.) From this list, you could choose one or two things that you think aren’t helping you be healthy. Being mindful of any habit makes it easier to change.
What do you want to change to
Once you identify one or two things you’d like to change, you can plan what you’d like to do instead. This might seem like a very short, simple step, but it’s very important. Because habits are automatic, you might find you’re halfway through doing something you don’t want to do, before you even realise it. Knowing what you’d like to do instead will help you plan for this, and make it easier to not start the old habit in the first place.
Making the habit change
Consider the when, where, and how of the old, less-helpful habit. These cues are what tell your brain it’s time for that specific automatic action, and can also tell you when it’s time to put your new healthy habit in place.
By planning the steps of your new habit, you’ll be better prepared to put them into action. In my snacking example above, I knew that getting home from work was my cue. Rather than walking straight to the fridge, I had to find something else to do. So my goal was to stop for a moment, put my keys down in a certain spot (another habit I wanted to form), put away all my work stuff, and get together everything I needed for the next day.
By planning out these “substitute” steps and being mindful of what my cues were, I was able to avoid going into the kitchen until it was time to start dinner.
Added bonus: It’s easier to act on these plans when they are on your mind (this is mindfulness!). While I was working on making this change, I would try to think about the steps I wanted to take instead, at several points through the day. I found it especially helpful to think about them when I was on my way home from work. Remembering that I wanted to make the change made it a lot easier to put into practice.
Mindfulness made it possible for me to change this habit. Because I took the time to identify my habits, recognise my cues, and plan for a new healthier habit, it was a lot easier to not automatically stop for a snack. My plan has modified a little from my original, but I have stuck with the “put away” part of my new habit. Your new habits will likely evolve as well. This is fine, as long as you are on autopilot in ways that support your goals and health.