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We all have bad habits that we want to get rid of. Snacking on the couch in front of the TV, going to bed way too late or smoking. Sounds familiar? The disadvantage of bad habits is that they are difficult to break. Every time the commercial starts on TV you get cravings and when you smell coffee you want a cigarette. Changing habits is hard but with a little help, it is possible to get rid of these bad and annoying habits.

The power of habits

You have done certain activities, whether good or bad, so often in the same situation that they have become automatic. It means that you don’t have to think about it consciously, you just have to get into the right context (start of the commercial, smell of coffee) and you do it.

Our lives are full of automatic habits: the route you take from home to work, brushing your teeth before going to bed or taking off your shoes when you get home. The fact that so much behavior is habitual behavior is a good thing though. Your brain can only consciously process a limited amount of information. If you even have to think about how to breathe for example, life would be a lot harder.

Sometimes only the intention to do something else is enough to change. However, research shows that more than 70% of the people require more than just the intention to break a habit. There are a few ways to reduce this gap between wanting to change and reducing actual change. A simple but effective method to break habits is the use of implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions

Implementation intentions help you to implement new behavior (instead of habitual behavior) so that you can easily implement it in your life. It specifies your action plan: what are you going to do, when are you going to do it and where are you going to do it. For example:

Your intention is: I want to exercise two times a week.

Implementation intention:
When I get home on Monday and Thursdays,      when
I will go for a jog in the park.                                      what & where

Because your action (running) is linked to a specific context via the implementation intention (coming home on Monday and Thursday), you do not have to make a conscious choice every day or every week about whether you want to exercise that day or not. An implementation intention also makes it easier to recognize the situation in which you can implement the new behavior (sports) because the context serves as a trigger for the behavior. Thirdly, the implementation intention helps to make a habit of the new behavior. The main ingredients for creating a habit, repetition in the same context, are already stored in the intention.

Tips

A number of things are important if you want the implementation intentions to be successful:

  • Make the implementation intention as specific as possible.
    For example: “When I watch TV and feel the need to eat, I grab an apple.” instead of “When I have a normal appetite, I will grab something healthy.”
  • State the behavior that you want to have. Your brain can process this more effectively. For example: “When I watch TV and get the need to eat, I grab an apple” instead of “When I watch TV and get the need to eat, I don’t grab chocolate.”
  • Choose a specific trigger (event) to which you link your behavior. For example: “If I have prepared my lunch, I will brush my teeth” instead of “If it is 07:00 PM I will brush my teeth.” If you want to create new daily habits, it is better to link the habits to the beginning or end of an existing pattern in your routine (for example, after coming home or before lunch).

The effect is the strongest when you implement one implementation intention at a time. So the less intentions (at the same time), the better!

If you are suffering from your habits and you are still unable to change it yourself, ask for help! For example when you have the habit of pulling your hair out of your head, creating bald spots or when you cannot stop gambling or smoking, despite the financial or health consequences. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

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