How to break habits to create new ways of thinking

A desire for self-improvement is a very natural human trait, particularly when it comes to wellbeing.

We can spend a lot of time and money in our quest for a better future, a better body, better health and a better mindset. That’s not to say that there’s anything broken or wrong with our current state, it’s just that we all have a drive inside us that pushes us consciously or unconsciously to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. Ultimately, we all want to have good health and do well in whatever it is we have decided to do.

However, we have varying degrees of success with this and often one of the biggest obstacles we face in our quest for self-improvement in any area of our lives comes in the form of the habits that we have developed over many years, sometimes decades. These ingrained patterns of behaviour are very hard to change without a compelling motivation and sustained effort.

So, let’s see if we can unlock this and start the process of change. Often there can be a defining event that causes a person to take action and change an existing habit.

It could be some form of trauma or loss, maybe a health scare or experiencing a positive life changing event, e.g. having a baby, moving house, connecting with long lost friends or family. Anything that has the effect of significantly shifting our thoughts and disrupting a routine. It is however also possible to instigate habit change outside of a defining event too.

Consider that our habits start as thoughts, which we then choose to act on. Our choices then lead to behaviours and these behaviours lead us to have experiences which have resulted from our actions.

The things we experience create feelings within us which then cause us to repeat the sequence and the action if the feelings we experienced were positive. Ultimately, we do the things we do because at some time, doing that thing made us feel good.

Problems arise when we’ve repeated these actions or behaviours so many times that our bodies can carry them out on autopilot. They are now our ingrained habits and where once they served us well, maybe 10 or 20 years on, our bodies and our minds need something different.

The world has changed around us, our physical, economic and technological environment and our responsibilities have shifted. We now need to shift the habit in order to retain our vitality and balance.

So, let’s assume that the way we think has something to do with the future we can create for ourselves. There is a theory that we have 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts in one day and that 90% of these thoughts are the same thoughts as the day before. So, it’s clear that things aren’t going to change much unless we change the thoughts that have formed these habits that we now play out every day.

How do we change our thoughts? The key is to have new experiences. Experiences that are so different and positive that they break the habits that no longer serve us.

Consciously seeking out people, situations and places that are different to those we have experienced before and that will enable us to create new feelings and associations about the world around us and how we show up in it.

At a neuroscientific level Hebbian theory states that, ‘nerve cells that fire together wire together.’ This reasserts that our habits are manifestations of neural pathways and ingrained patterns of behaviour which have the ability to shape our physiology and our mindset.

So, for every day that we follow our habits and maintain 90% of the same thoughts that we had the previous day we reinforce those neural pathways and strengthen them, thereby making the habit harder to break.

If we want to shift the habit and create new neural pathways, we need to weaken the old pathways through not reinforcing them every day. We need to replace the old action with something different - that could be a behaviour more aligned with the improvement in self-care we are seeking, or something completely new that we have never tried before that sparks our curiosity or brings us fun and joy.

Something that disrupts us and leaves us no option but to think differently, in essence creating a new neural pathway in our brain.

If you’re feeling stuck with an old habit that isn’t doing anything positive for you try this. Think about what you’re doing next week and plan in three things that you have never done before, completely new experiences.

They can be small or big things and if you get stuck, ask a friend to suggest some ideas for you. Your conscious brain will resist because it likes the habit and routine, that’s why you got stuck in the first place.

Don’t listen to that voice in your head when it comes up with an excuse for why you can’t try the new thing. Remember you’re doing this because you want different results. For that you need different thinking which leads to different choices and actions. Ultimately the feelings created by the new actions will be different too and the experience of those positive new feelings is how habit shift happens.

Karen Beaven is a HR director, strategist and author

More HR wellbeing columns from Karen Beaven:

Are you stuck on autopilot?

HR needs to know it is never alone

Top tips on knowing when to stop