I write a lot about developing new habits, and not much about breaking old ones. Why? I’m not going to get too deep into it here, but it’s really, really difficult, if not impossible, to erase an old habit loop once your brain learns the cues. I know that comes as pretty bad news to those of you that are wanting to break up with an old habit like smoking, or self-criticism, or procrastination, or eating cookies in the middle of the night.
Habit loops are a neurological phenomenon in the brain. We are hard wired to develop habits throughout life, and once a habit forms, it is deeply ingrained into our neural network. These loops are usually with us for the long haul. That’s why people who quit smoking 10 years ago can, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly relapse. Why after a transformational workshop, people using self-love affirmations see that shame-blame stuff creep back in over time.
I know. It sucks.
But before you throw your hands in the air and scream, “There is no hope!” … I have a plan.
You can hijack your habit cues.
Let me explain.
Say you have an unhealthy habit of mindlessly scrolling your Facebook feed right before a deadline. The cue is the rush of anxiety when you remember the deadline, the behavior is the facebook feed, and the reward is that pleasant numbness and anxiety relief you get from staring at your friends and all their dogs and babies for an hour. But this habit loop is not serving you. After the hour is done, you are really down to the wire. Your work is more sloppy, and you experience more stress.
So the cue here is the rush of anxiety. Now, at first, you might not notice the surge of anxiousness, only that suddenly you are on Facebook. That’s okay. When you notice either A) the anxiety, B) the desire to open Facebook, or C) That you almost unconsciously opened Facebook, you are ready to hijack.
Ask yourself this: what cues would actually help you reduce your anxiety and get back to the task at hand?
Ten jumping jacks? Deep breathing? Chamomile tea? A few deep stretches? Pick one small thing that you know tends to help you shift your mind under pressure and return to your work. For example, when I get anxious during a task, I find that just standing up, touching my toes, and sitting back down is a solid reset for me.
When you identify a small, easy, non-addictive thing you can do, connect it directly to the original cue.
So originally, you had this loop: Anxiety –> Facebook –> Relief
Now you have: Anxiety –> Urge to use Facebook –> Stand up and do a full forward fold –> Relief
And over time, if you notice the anxiety before the Facebook urge or in the absence of the urge, put the cue there too:
Anxiety –> Forward Fold –> Relief
And most importantly, make the forward fold one of your cues for your work. Do it even when you aren’t anxious. So every time you are about to work on a project, after a break, after a meeting, whatever:
Forward fold –> Start working
So now, the forward fold is deeply associated with both anxiety relief and with working.
Notice that I chose forward fold because I find this action naturally relaxing. If you don’t, choose something else that is short and simple.
Over time, you’ll notice that the forward fold becomes automatic. It will cut straight into that deeply ingrained habit loop and insert a redirect.
Now, is your Facebook habit loop gone? I highly doubt it, unless you permanently deleted Facebook. If you take that cue hijacker out, it will likely return. That’s because habits are very hard to erase, and it’s why, despite the fact that we know being on social media too much is bad for our health, we all have our faces pressed into our phones all day every day. That’s just how habits work.
But now that you know the game, you can outsmart your old habits.
And that, my friends, makes all the difference.
What cue will you use to hijack an unhealthy habit this week?