I’ve noticed of late a pattern in the client work I am doing, clients so often know what it is they need to do to help themselves feel better, and yet find it very difficult to actually make the changes they want to make. Why is this?
One reason is the power of habits. Habits can be wonderful things. They can make life really easy for us, we go along on auto-pilot, not having to think too much about what we are doing. They are like well-worn grooves that we find ourselves in before we’ve really registered what is happening.
Habits can be things we do, or ways that we think. For example, you probably have a habit for how you clean your teeth, and for the order in which you do things when you get ready on a morning. You probably take the same route each time you make a regular journey. You probably have habitual thoughts when things go well, perhaps taking the credit, or perhaps thinking it was just good luck.
The down-side of habits is that without realising, we can keep do things that no longer serve us. For example, anxious thoughts can be a habitual response - we ‘know’ that certain things are challenging for us, and so we expect to be anxious, or even begin to avoid doing them so that we don’t get anxious. Thinking negatively can also be a strong habit, particularly when our mood is low. It’s like we have a magnet for troubling thoughts, we notice all the stuff that is going wrong, and we habitually don’t see the up-side. Eating patterns, exercising or not exercising, sleep patterns, all of these are habit driven.
The good news is that habits can be changed. Changing habits takes effort and energy, and it takes time. We need to repeatedly do something different. Just like learning to drive, at first that will feel awkward, uncomfortable, energy-sapping. Knowing that a new behaviour or pattern of thinking will get easier and in time will feel more normal can be a help. We can reassure ourselves that the effort we’re making is worth it if we have a strong reason for changing the way we act.
For habits you want to change, here are three tips:
A Be really clear what the benefits are. A compelling reason will be a big help when you need a reminder of why you started.
B Remember that you are in control, not the habit. You have the power to change what you do and what you think, given time and practice. Remind yourself of this when you need to, and you lessen the grip of what you no longer want.
C Know that changing a habit takes time, usually 3-4 weeks. When you fall back into old ways, remind yourself that changing habits takes effort and that the most important thing is to keep going, and carry on. Remember the metaphor of learning to walk, if you’d stopped the first time you fell over you’d still be crawling.