Almost all of us have a few bad habits that we’d like to shift if possible. Maybe you snack more than you should, maybe you lie in bed too long in the mornings, or maybe you bite your nails.
Either way, breaking habits is hard because they become deeply ingrained into our brains. Each time we repeat the behavior, we strengthen the neural connections that represent it and it becomes more difficult to avoid in future. Eventually, an action becomes almost entirely automatic and thus it requires an awful lot of mental energy just to derail ourselves from going through the motions. One slip and you find yourself falling back into old habits.
If you’ve tried and failed to give up smoking, watching YouTube for hours or hitting snooze then you likely know this all too well. So what’s the solution?
Change the Environment to Change the Behavior
The simple trick is to change your environment and the rest of your routine. Once you do this, you will find it becomes much easier to change the behavior. This is actually why rehab centers work so well – they remove the patient from their usual surroundings and this makes it far easier for them to leave behind their old negative behaviors.
So why does this work? One reason is that our environment and our routine act as triggers and associations that trigger the bad habits.
For instance, if you always smoke when you have a drink, then you’ll find that drinking automatically leads to smoking. In your brain, the two events have been linked and thus the one action leads on automatically to the next and makes it hard to stop. The brain loves routine and everything is now going to be pointing towards getting out a cigarette and taking a smoke.
Likewise, if you always snack on chocolate bars when you watch TV, then turning on the TV will begin the sequence of events because the two are linked.
Of course there are other ways that your environment and routine might more directly lead to negative habits too. For instance, it might be that your friends or colleagues actively encourage you to engage in the habits – by giving you a cigarette and smoking around you for instance. Likewise, simply seeing the people who you normally engage in a habit with might make it harder to push it out of your mind.
And similarly, being in a new environment can actively help you to drop your habits. One way this can happen is if the new environment takes away the opportunity to engage in the bad habit. If you normally do something you know you shouldn’t when your partner leaves the house, then going on a holiday with them for a week might mean that the opportunity never presents itself.
How to Change Your Environment
If you are really serious about changing a bad habit then, the best way to approach this is to try and change that habit while you’re out of your usual context. Try and give up smoking while you’re on holiday or even check yourself into a rehab center for a while.
If that isn’t an option or you find you need longer to make the change, then you can also try changing your lifestyle and routine in other ways. This means changing the entire ritual that normally leads to the behaviour. So if you always pick your nose on the bus, try walking instead! If you always snack while you’re in the kitchen and no one can see you, ask your partner if they can make dinner instead, or if they would sit in there with you.
Even just redecorating your home and tidying can help to give you the feeling of a fresh start and this can make it much easier to turn over that new leaf!