Understanding habits to enable positive change

by | 18 Jun 2024 | Unleashing You, Wellbeing

Habits drive nearly half our daily behaviour.  These behaviours can be positive or negative in relation to our wellbeing and wider experiences in life.  Increasing understanding of habits and enables us to develop strategies to make lasting changes. 

What is a habit?

Habits are actions that are repeated over time to become unconscious behaviours.  In our daily life habits allow us to get through the day efficiently without having to consciously consider every action we take.  Imagine how exhausting every day would be if from the moment we woke up we had to decide around every element of everything we did?

There are two types of habit.  Passive ones, where we gradually become used to something that then becomes a habitual response; and active ones that we consciously cultivate, generally with the aim of an outcome that we desire.

Are habits good or bad?

Habits can be good and helpful, and support our performance and wellbeing, or they may be maladaptive habits that are often developed as a response to stress or a negative experience. We don’t deliberately create bad habits.

Habits are formed within structures deep in our brain in areas called the basal ganglia, these develop early in life.  This part of our brain helps us to decide in any moment what action should be taken. 

Habits become hard-wired and around 40% of our daily activities are habits that we do without thinking. This has both positive and negative perspectives.  From the positive perspective it is much more energy efficient, particularly when we have a series of actions to do, known as ‘chunking’.  These chunks save significant energy because the behaviours are at a level below conscious thought.  The conscious level is when we are following processes like decision making and require a much more active participation.

Whilst in general the concept of multi-tasking is a fallacy, this subconscious element of a habit means we can sometimes do more then one thing e.g. brushing our teeth whilst thinking about something, or driving whilst talking to someone. 

Reward or some form of positive reinforcement is another element of habitual behaviour.  Think of the effectiveness of star charts in supporting children to develop positive habits.  When there is some form of reward there is a release of dopamine and other chemicals that make us feel good.  These rewards don’t have to be external; it may be a goal that is important to us.

There are differing theories around forming habits, however, the comment elements are:

  • Trigger, stimuli, or craving
  • Behaviour
  • Reward

The reward creates the motivation to respond to the stimuli and action the learnt behaviour.

Making changes to our habits

    Habits can be changed through practice and breaking the current habit cycle.  Where change is hard is is often linked to other areas of self-acceptance, self-kindness, and any limiting beliefs we might hold.  These are all elements of the Unleashing You programme and you can find more here.

    You can also read on to the other blogs in the series on Building New Habits and Making Habits Stick


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