Wondering how to break a bad habit?

Mull over this … like so much else in life bad habits are often a loop.

Loopy training is a big thing in positive dog training circles at the moment. It probably is in all circles but I tend to hang out in positive places. I am thrilled to see it showing up again and again and again but I didn’t really get why I loved it until I thought through how much of my life is helping others (of the human, equine and canine species) finish loops successfully. That’s my real jam when you break it down. Helping people finish a loop and get ready for the next one.

Frustratingly not all loops are positive – bad habits also follow a very distinct cycle. We have a cue or trigger which starts the routine/habit we aren’t happy about which leads to a reward – no matter if we realize it or not. Nice little loop there eh? The cue or trigger begins the sequence. What might that cue be? A certain time of day, a specific feeling or thought, getting bored or stressed are all common ones to start up the Bad Habit Bus.

Get your motor running …

Once the bus is in motion we will head pretty quickly to the routine. The doing this thing we might really not choose to do if we were completely aware of the power of habit. You know the kind of thing I mean. Eating a whole bag of chips, scrolling social media for an hour not 5 minutes, yelling at the souls we love – whatever your thing is that you wish wasn’t happening. You fill in your own destination on your bus ride!

To close the loop we get something for doing the routine. We get a reward. Perhaps our dog stops barking at squirrels or our brain feels satisfied with chips on board. Sigh. We, to carry the bus analogy a little too far, reach our destination.

Rewards matter for people too

That reward may be easily apparent or it may not seem as obvious. But that reward closes the loop. And closing the loop sets us up very nicely in terms of neural science to start the next loop. Rewards sometimes feel quite irresistible, the more immediate they are, the faster the loop closes and the more we want to repeat the cycle. The reward may be peace and quiet, or a dopamine hit or a sugar rush (because we don’t consciously think ahead to the crash that follows the rush) or feeling a moment of connection to social media life. There are many potential rewards in any behaviour and as we all know reinforcement matters!

Changing the habit

This is a spot reframing that can really make a difference. Because the bad habit is also causing you stress or pain in some way (or you wouldn’t think of it as a bad habit!). Scrolling social media mindlessly as one example might be wasting time, distracting you from people who love you and want to spend time with you, exposing you to light that makes your head hurt.

How can you replace the routine and get a similar reward? It’s not easy and there is no singular formula that applies to everyone either. Sigh. < insert my self-help rant > But it’s worth investing some time and energy into considering. If the routine is conflict and the reward is making up perhaps it’s time to implement Date Night. If the reward is feeling better about your lot in life after scrolling aquaintances social media perhaps focusing on journaling would give you the same boost.

Brainy thoughts

Our primal, primitive limbac brain loves the familar. The routine we know feels comfortable and safe. But living auto pilot can be dangerous and frustrating because that’s where loops can become unfulfilling and stressful. That loop of grabbing fast food at a trial? That loop is easy and comforting but not nearly as good for your performance as preparing food ahead of time or making a healthy food choice out.

Our limbac brain is most concerned with safety and reproducing. The focus on feeling like a good person, or being our best self? That’s not our primal brain’s work. In general our brain could care less how we feel if we are safe. Curious brains in an evolutionary sense get us into trouble.

Yet using a curious and reflective brain can identify negative thought patterns, limiting beliefs and judgements and help us be kind both to others and ourselves. Finding that space to reflect and decide who we want to be and what loops we want to explore, open and close is so much more fun than being distressed and unhappy about bad habits.

In Conclusion

Here’s something I often contemplate. We can get in patterns of habituated thoughts as easily as habits. Have you fallen into a negative thought habit? Feeling your feelings, considering your actions and behaviours and not shutting them away is HARD. It can make a huge difference in how we respond to the negative feelings, routines, and habits in our life if we understand what’s influencing and driving them. We can choose the loop we operate on. We can get help to choose our loops. Not from social media but friends, and colleagues and the support system around us. If you have habits you’d like to change invest some time in identifying what cues them, what the routine is and how you can achieve the reward without the routine. You, and your sense of self, and wellness, are worth it!