Breaking a Habit

Habits are formed to save the brain having to process every action you take. If you think about making a cup of coffee at home a lot of this process is habitual. You know where you keep your coffee, you know how to put water in a kettle and boil it. You know where you keep the milk and how to pour that into a mug. If you think through what has to happen for any of the above, there are actually a lot of steps that happen sequentially in order for you to produce a cup of coffee. Over the years your brain has remembered these and stored them in the ‘basal ganglia’. The basal ganglia is buried deep in the brain and a lot of animals possess this. Scientists believe this is where habits are stored.
The habit is activated by a specific cue, the brain then runs the stored routine, and ultimately there is some reward. In the example above a cup of coffee to drink. When we are working with clients trying to achieve lifestyle change you are effectively trying to overwrite a lot of old habits. If we think of people with a liking for chocolate, then this will occur because of an ingrained habit. There will be some cue (or any number of cues) that gets the client to think about chocolate. They will run the routine which is stored in the basal ganglia and be rewarded by eating chocolate. You cannot erase this habit, but you can overwrite it. The first thing you need to understand is what are the cues that trigger this habit. If you know what the cues are you can now replace the old routine (habit) with a new routine. At first this will have to be very conscious thoughts and steps and the reward will have to be salient. In other words, the reward has to have a perceived value for the client. They will have to follow the new routine consciously for as long as 254 days (1) as research suggests this is how long a habit can take to form.
From this you can see what a challenge achieving a lifestyle change is going to be. A lot of your client’s habits will be ingrained routines and you are going to have to help them write new routines. In order to achieve this, you will need a very clear picture of their current lifestyle habits and routines. Good communication from the outset is crucial so you can fully appreciate what a typical day looks like for your client. From here you can work with your client to start building new habits. This will not be achieved overnight and is going to take a lot of effort from both the trainer and the client. When a client has a relapse during a programme this is simply them reverting to an old habit. If you get them to examine why they relapsed, you can often discover the underlying cue. Now you can replace the old routine with a new one; this should ensure the relapse does not occur again.

1. Journal of Social Psychology. (2010) 40, 998–1009