A habit is an action or series of actions that we perform in a subconscious manner. We don’t have to consciously think about doing these things, they seem to happen on their own. Habits can be good or bad, depending on how they enhance our quality of life, or detract from it.
Have you ever driven home or to work and then had no recollection of the ride? Or have you taken the wrong exit off a freeway because it’s the one you usually take, when in fact you had intended to keep on to another exit? Our minds become conditioned to doing things in a certain way, simply because we have done them over and over again in that exact way. This can be a good thing, as it makes much of our daily routine somewhat effortless. Imagine having to focus intently on every little thing you did, like washing dishes or taking out the garbage. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
However, negative actions can also become habits, and that makes them extremely difficult to change. How many times have you tried to adopt an exercise program, quit smoking, lose weight, or give up junk food? It takes between 21-30 days to form a new habit. This means you must perform your new actions repeatedly, day after day, for up to 30 days before your subconscious mind will begin to do them automatically. Until then it takes consistent effort and focus.
When trying to break a bad habit, it is usually helpful to substitute a good habit. Otherwise you’ll end up feeling restless and gravitate back to the bad habit again to fill the void. For example, when quitting smoking, take up gum chewing, exercise, deep breathing, knitting, etc. When the urge for a cigarette hits, you have other activities you can use to busy yourself. At first, the new habit may not seem like an adequate substitute (especially if nicotene withdrawal is part of the equation!), but with consistent reinforcement, your mind will begin to let go of the old habit of smoking and adopt the newer habits you have substituted.
When trying to adopt a new habit, such as exercise, you may need to place visible reminders at your desk, on the refrigerator door, or the bathroom mirror. Remember that your mind is accustomed to not thinking about exercise. It will take some focused attention to change that.
It is important to have patience with yourself as you work on changing your habits. Remember that they are habits because they are largely subconscious. As you focus your conscious mind repeatedly on your new actions, they will also become subconscious, just like the negative actions did. Print out this handy Habit Forming Chart and hang it up where you will see it everyday. It can serve as a great reminder for your goals, as well as show your progress from day to day.
Don’t beat yourself up if you have “failures” here and there as you work on forming new habits. No one is perfect, and you will probably have days where you don’t meet your goals. The most difficult aspect of forming new habits is becoming aware of the automatic actions we take each day, and making a conscious decision to change them.