What are habits & how can we make them work for us?

What are habits?

The word habit is defined as “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it” (Cambridge Dictionary).

In his book Atomic Habits James Clear writes “A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.” It has become an unconscious competence, learned from experience, so that we can access the same solution to a problem in the past. Behavioural scientist Jason Hreha writes “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment”.

Scientific research shows us that our habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. The sequence of automatic actions that the brain converts into a routine, is known as chunking, and this is at the root of how habits form.

Why do we have habits?

Our habits are created to save brain space, so that everyday actions and activities, from reversing the car out of the garage to walking down the street require very little brain power, saving the mental space for more challenging tasks such as running businesses and designing space rockets!

According to James Clear, “Habits are a double-edged sword. They can work for you or against you”. I often find that with my clients, as with myself, this is so often the case.

Take a brief moment to reflect on your own habits and ask yourself: “Which support my health and wellness, and which habits hold me back from optimum mental & physical strength and peek energy levels?”

Do our habits reflect who we want to be?

All our habits or actions represent the type of person we want to be.
For example, If we want to become healthier: – maybe we want to lose weight, reduce how much sugar is in our diet, or start exercising, we can ask ourselves “What would a healthy person do?”

A healthy person might eat less, they might eat whole foods prepared from scratch, they would exercise regularly, they would be mindful of their food choices. If we act like who we want to become, we will begin to gently shape this identity. Remember we have the ability to change our beliefs about ourselves. Our identity is not set in stone. We can always make choices in each moment that presents itself.

Habit change begins with awareness

When it comes to our own health & self-care, AWARENESS is the first step to begin to learn to uncover our own blind spots with the habits that are working for us, and those that are working against us.

  • Using a habit tracker can be a powerful mechanism to track all our habits. Click on the button below to use the template to track yours. The goal of this exercise is not to change your behavior, even for the bad habits. The goal is to simply first notice what is actually going on. I encourage you to track your habits for a week.
  • Using your increased awareness gained from this exercise, you can then begin to gently take control of any unhealthy habits that you want to change. More tips on how to change these in my December newsletter, so stay tuned for Part II…
The Layers of Behaviour Change

(Source: Atomic Habits, James Clear)

Habit change and identity change are integrally linked. You will see 3 layers of behaviour change depicted in the diagram above. Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focussing on WHAT they want to achieve. In other words, on their goals! So we focus all our attention on outcome based habits – the sequence of which would start from the outer layer – our outcomes, then our routines and processes, towards the centre, our identity.

Identity based habits focus on WHO we wish to become, which clearly supports a much more sustainable process, and bigger picture of your WHY, aligning with your values as you build your habits around this identity.

I work quite deeply on this with my clients in the one to one health coaching process, so that they can clearly see the root of their motivation in order that they make better choices each and every day: from the food on their plate, to their sleep routine, to designing their home work environment. These aspects set the stage for a subtle yet powerful shift in habits. Your habits model your identity (who you wish to become) and your identity models your habits.

Through the relationship developed with my clients, they discover for themselves this key concept: that habits matter to us because they are not just the means to achieving our goals, rather they are a continuous process in itself. It is this principal that can lead us to our greater longevity.

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