We are creatures of habit. About half of what we do is governed by habit, as the unconscious mind takes over and embeds our routines in our neural pathways. It is a nifty survival strategy, that over millions of years has kept us safe and protected and freed up the conscious mind for our deliberate thinking and actions.
Habits get ingrained, and become well-worn pathways after years of constant regular use. An habitual action is triggered by cues and associations, so some people find they always put the kettle on when they get back from shopping, check the dog is in before leaving the house or switch the computer on as soon as they arrive in the office.
No harm in any of that, you might think, in fact we go out of our way to teach children positive habits like not eating after they have cleaned their teeth, or doing their homework as soon as they get back from school. Habits help us as they ensure clear, efficient functioning and bring order and stability to our lives.
But what about when you want to change a habit? Or want to learn a new habit? Nerissa, a client of mine, worked hard at her demanding job in a hospital, never got home before eight. She felt exhausted and would pour a large glass of white wine in the evenings. But more often than she liked, that led to another and another…..
Now, I am no mathematician, but it was clear her unconscious mind was triggered by this simple formula:
Time (8pm)+place (home)+cue (tired after work)+association (wine in fridge)= reward (large glass of chilled wine slipping down throat.)
Under hypnosis, it was pleasant and easy for Nerissa, to habit-break and to start a new reward-based habit using the familiar formula of time+place+cue+association=reward.
Her unconscious mind reminded Nerissa that she had always loved lemon barley water – a drink she had forgotten about, It had been special a treat in childhood. She had suffered from painful sore throats and was given to her to sip when she was unwell. The cool liquid had powerful unconscious associations of being soothed, comforted and cared for. She let go of wine and substituted lemon barley water, as it gave her all the rewards she was unconsciously looking for and matched the formula recognised by the unconscious mind.
If you want to kick out an old habit and substitute a new one, here are some easy steps using the formula.
Step 1 – Get the unconscious and conscious mind on your side. It is essential the mind understands you are 100% committed to the new actions and that you perceive the change to be overwhelmingly rewarding to you. Otherwise, you will assuredly encounter resistance.
Step 2 – Identify TIME, PLACE, CUE, ASSOCIATION, REWARD. (you can keep a diary to identify these elements for a few days prior to the change).
For example, at 4pm-ish at work, you tend to feel a bit bored, and you associate that with going to the canteen to enjoy the pick me up of a freshly made muffin.
Step 3 – Use the formula but substitute healthier elements. Consider getting up and going outside for a few minutes to eat a protein based snack, or maybe have a quick chat and laugh with a colleague. It takes six weeks of regular, repeated actions to install a new habit.
Step 4 – If you decide you want to install a big, new habit, early morning swimming, for instance, use the formula to condition your mind. The biggest part of the formula is the reward. Keep a focus on the rewards: you are ahead of the game – a relaxed start to the day, less traffic, fitter, more toned, burning calories faster, arriving at work bright and alert. Cues and associations naturally embed and then bubble up from the unconscious unbidden.
You will find you install the habit effortlessly as cues and associations trigger those desired feelings, that bring the rewards. The sight of your swim gear all ready and laid out inspires you, walking through the pool reception reminds you how relaxed and energised you will soon be feeling, saying hello to work colleagues triggers a feeling of being smart and fresh etc. Your unconscious mind is happy too, as it knows how to automatically use the formula to set your new habit in concrete for you.
Habits become things we depend on; they make life easier, and often function as treats to look forward to. My favourite coffee shop did not seem half so alluring when I decided to break my after gym cup of coffee with banana pecan muffin habit.
Just look at how people’s faces drop when they hear the assistant tell them they can’t their usual almond croissant at 11am because the last one has just gone. Many of us however feel like victims of our habits.