Everyday habits help us through life. But how do you break unwanted habits and replace them with new ones? Without our daily habits, it’s likely our lives would descend into chaos. Certain habits, however, like smoking and over-eating are not so good for us. So how do we change unwanted patterns?

What we know

Scientists believe we possess an innate ability to form habits when we repeat an action and get a positive result. Brain scientist Wendy Wood explains: “We find patterns of behaviour that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and responses.”

A change of scene

So to derail a habit you need to change the context in which it normally occurs. We often pick up new habits and drop old ones when we move to a new city or change jobs. To create the same effect without a major change, modify your existing environment instead.

Small changes

For example, if your goal is to break unhealthy eating habits, create a different environment around food. If the foods that tempt you are what you see first when you open the fridge, hide them and put healthy foods in full view. Keep tempting foods out of sight, and the environment that created the habit in the first place is gone.

New patterns

Now you can kick-start a new behaviour. For this to become a habit, it has to be repeated in a specific context with a cue. So, if you want to start eating a piece of fruit every day, make a plan to have it after your morning coffee. This will become the cue to eat fruit. Follow that pattern of coffee first and fruit after and the habit will stick.

Be patient!

Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 15 days to 254 days to form a new habit. Repetition is the secret. “There’s no easy formula for how long it takes,” says Wood. 

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