It’s not just the beginning of the year that invites us to explore new desires and goals and to make plans for manifesting our dreams into reality.
Often we already know about our annoying habits that prevent us from fulfilling our real desires. Instead of rewarding oneself with a glass of wine or beer after a long day at work, you wanted to drink a cup of this special and delicious wellness tea already for a long time. You wanted to replace watching TV after with a long walk or a leisurely reading session. And yes, instead of staying in bed so long, you intended to get up early to meditate or practice Qigong.
Why is it so difficult for most people to put an end to old habits? Research shows that it is not enough just to formulate a new positive intention to let old habits go.
Even if we consider ourselves an expert in our own actions, the brain whistles on it. It continues unperturbed with its old habits.
This is the statement by Josef Egger, Behavioral Physician at the University of Graz. The reason for this is that bad and good habits are anchored in ancient areas of the brain – in the limbic system of the brain – a part of the brain which we have in common with reptiles and that probably also drove the behavior of the dinosaurs.
The good news is that since then, our brains have evolved and new brain regions have been added. This includes e.g. the neocortex that makes it possible to recognize bad habits. However, there is still no region in the brain that easily undermines the habits anchored in the limbic system.
A trained habit becomes routine without it being accompanied by emotion or the use of willpower. Scientists call this principle “habitual sweep”, which is determined by the interaction of “trigger-routine reward”.
Trigger can e.g. a strenuous working day, the routine of watching TV as a relaxation (reward). When such a pattern has been established, pure willpower and intentions might not change anything, if e.g. one intends to build up a routine of going for a walk or training Qigong instead of watching TV for relaxation.
More promising is to oppose bad habits with a better one.
At New York University, studies have found that people who make concrete plans are more successful than those who set abstract goals.
We are asked to think of concrete instructions if we want to abandon old habits. We are, so to say, opposing an automatism we want to get rid of, with a new, desired automatism. This can look like this:
Instead of watching TV or having a glass of wine in the evening to reward yourself for the busy working day, you build a new concrete course of action that breaks with the pattern of the old habit:
“When I come home after a hard day at work, I first go to the kitchen and prepare a delicious wellness tea.”
For using this trick of an “if-then” plan, the Hamburg psychologist Gabriele Oettingen suggests the “WOOP” process for self-therapy.
Apply these four easy steps:
- Wish: Formulate your new intention
- Outcome: Imagine the desired result
- Obstacle: Identify the possible obstacles
Plan: Set up an “if-then” plan
and thus replace all sorts of old habits with new wishes.
More tips for reprogramming routines:
1. Concrete plans bring more than abstract goals – e.g. “Every morning I train for half an hour Qigong from 7h to 7h30” instead of “I train more Qigong now”
2. Positive intentions are more fruitful: better replace “no more wine after work” with: “When I come home in the evening, I’ll go to the kitchen first and make myself a cup of wellness tea”
3. Decide! If you want to change something, then it is important that you are convinced of your new goal.
4. Keep it simple: do not take too much at once, but change one habit after the other.
5. Avoid the triggering situation, because habits are situation-driven. If you have established a routine of drinking a glass of wine in the evening, then dispose of your wine rack and instead start to stock Wellness tea!
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