How to break a bad habit in 4 simple steps

by Heather Thatcher

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Have you ever noticed how President Obama always wore a navy blue suit? 

Or how Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s Founder and CEO) always wears a grey t-shirt and jeans?

You can look at all kinds of successful people and see that their wardrobes don’t change very much.

If you’re thinking “fun fact, Heather, but what does that have to do with me and why I’m here?”

It has everything to do with the first pillar of the Ultimate Life Survival Guide and I’m going to tell you why.

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The science shows us that we have a limited amount of decisions that we can make effectively every day. This is one of the reasons why we go through 95% of our day based on our habits, both physical and mental.

By relying on the habits associated with who we identify as, we save that extra brainpower for when we need to make a decision.

Just like the leaders of our countries, the CEOs of big organizations and other high-achieving individuals, you are also hit with a bajillion decisions that you have to make every day.

And by a “bajillion” I mean the research estimates that we make 35,000 decisions per day.

Look at you go, makin’ all those choices!

But, the research also shows us that every time we have to make another decision it becomes more and more difficult to make good choices.

The more decisions we make, the worse our decision-making ability becomes.

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Think of it this way:

At the end of a long day of work, if you don’t have a meal plan and you come home and ask yourself “what should I have for dinner?” it’s a heck of a lot easier to go for a convenient option than to make a healthy meal from scratch. No, you’re not being lazy or lacking willpower.

You have decision fatigue.

That is why President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and many other highly successful and powerful people have a very simple wardrobe. 

If they don’t have to decide what to wear in the morning because everything in their closet goes together – that’s one less decision they have to make.

No, I’m not suggesting that you go out and get a monochromatic wardrobe and overhaul your closet so everything matches.

But just imagine how different your life would be if your day was more streamlined.

How much easier would things be for you if you didn’t have to make as many decisions as you do now? What if dinner was already decided for you when you get home and it only took 10-minutes to pull together?

What if your normal household chores were added into your week in such a way that you only spend 10-minutes a day, but always have a beautifully clean house?

What if you had someone else do your grocery shopping for you?

What if exercising every day was as easy and natural to you as brushing your teeth?

What if it was easier to follow your desired habits, and harder to fall back on your old unwanted habits?

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In this second pillar of the Ultimate Life Survival Guide, we look for ways that we can streamline and simplify our lives so that we minimize the decisions we have to make.

We look for ways to make it easier for us to follow through on our desired habits and make it harder for us to fall back into our old unwanted patterns.

By bringing the external aspects of our lives into alignment with who we want to become, we’re choosing to make fewer choices!

As I mentioned before, the research in this area has determined that we go through about 95% of our day based on our subconscious habits. This means that we go through 95% of our day on autopilot, following the habit cycle based on the cues and triggers we see in our environment.

When we’re in autopilot we’re in what I call “Default Survival Mode” which we’ll get into more in the next episode when we talk about self-talk, but just know that when we’re in default survival mode our body and mind wants everything to stay the same. Our mind-body uses our existing patterns as if it were a computer program or set of directions to follow without question.

In order to rewrite this computer program or directions, we have to understand one of the fundamental components of default survival mode and that is the structure of a habit cycle.

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Habit science shows us that each of our habits has three parts:

  1. the trigger or cue
  2. our response to that trigger or cue
  3. the rewards or consequences of our response

Every habit we have follows this framework, whether they are emotional habits or physical habits.

What makes this so exciting is the fact that because every habit has three parts, it gives us a solid, logical framework on which to change ANY habit that we want to.

We just have to learn how to work with this three-part framework.

When I met Rashmi she was feeling very frustrated with her habit of emotional eating. She was a Registered Dietician and spent most of her day talking to people about the importance of a healthy diet and how to incorporate this into their lives.

But at the end of a long, stressful day, Rashmi would come home, abandon her meal plan and order some kind of comfort food.

She was so frustrated because no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t break the cycle of craving wine and something cheesy for dinner after a long, stressful day at work.

As with so many of our habit cycles, we’ve been taught to follow these patterns as children.

Just like so many of us, when Rashmi had a tough day at school or her soccer team didn’t win the game, her mother would take her out for ice cream or make her favourite dinner.

Over time Rashmi started to associate these foods with feelings of comfort, connection and love from her family.

Ever wonder why they’re called “comfort foods”? That’s why!

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Coming back to the habit cycle, then, here’s what it would look like for Rashmi:

First, Rashmi would be triggered by all the emotions and fatigue of making it through a stressful day at work.

This would lead to the second part of the habit cycle which is her response which is to crave comfort foods like wine, chocolate, and cheesy goodness.

Her reward, at least initially, is the feeling of comfort, connection and love that she’s learned to associate with these foods as a child.

This is where my four steps to breaking a bad habit come into play. I have a free pdf available for you that will walk you through the four steps and you can get that by clicking here.

Here’s how it works:

Rashmi looked at what the real problem was – that she was trying to get the feeling of comfort, connection and love from food even though food doesn’t have the power to do that. Food only has the power that we give it, and Rashmi was going to take that power back.

Then she brainstormed a bunch of different ways she could get the feeling of comfort, connection and love WITHOUT relying on food.

This is key.

Absolutely, Rashmi could have gone for a walk or tried to watch Netflix instead of caving into her comfort foods.

But unless those activities give you the same reward in your habit cycle, you’re going to find yourself relying on a ton of willpower to stick to your plan.

After a stressful day, you need comfort and validation for your feelings – not distraction and dismissal, right?

So the other options Rashmi brainstormed had to still give her the feeling of comfort, connection and love.

Step one was to identify your habit cycle and what the real issue is. Step two is to brainstorm a bunch of ideas that will still give you the same reward.

Step three is to pick one option and give it a try. Finally, step four is to step back and ask yourself if your plan worked.

If yes, awesome! Keep it up and keep going!

If not, that’s okay! You found what doesn’t work, now come back to your big brainstormed list and pick something else to try!

Now Rashmi has completely broken her emotional eating pattern and has a bunch of different ideas that allow her to feel comforted and validated after a stressful day – without adding to her waistline.

This strategy works, friends. I use it all the time in my practice and I teach it, along with many other habit-busting techniques in the Ultimate Life Survival Guide which you can get access to as a member of the online community. 

Again, those four steps are #1 identify your habit cycle and the real issue that you need to change, #2 brainstorm a bunch of different ideas that will help you change just one aspect of the habit cycle that still gives you the desired reward, #3 try it out for about a week, #4 if it worked, awesome, if not come back to your brainstormed list and try something else.

Make sense?

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