Fast track to healthy habits
How to form healthy habits
I love these words from the writer Nathaniel Emmons: "Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters."
That is so true.
Good habits like work ethic, habits of health and habits of good social connection can enrich our lives, while bad habits like procrastination, addictions - which are really very compulsive destructive habits - and habits of avoidance of opportunity can ruin our lives.
A habit is a thought or a behaviour that you find hard not to do. Obviously, if you find it hard not to drink yourself into oblivion every night, then this 'habit of drunkenness' is likely to have bad consequences for you, but if you find it hard not to keep your promise to someone once you've given your word, then this 'habit of integrity' can be a great thing.
Above and beyond habit is free will. People can sometimes feel just as straightjacketed by their good habits as by their bad ones. For example, once in a while it can be a good thing for someone to 'let their hair down', tell a few risqué jokes, loosen up and have a drink. A healthy habit should be a general trend rather than an inflexible rule, in my opinion.
Now how do habits form?
Well, it's also been said that "Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do." And this really gets to the nub of how habits come to be - which is through repetition.
Fire together, wire together
The more you do something, no matter what that 'something' happens to be, the more right and natural it feels to do it. Putting a burning cylinder of crushed dried tobacco leaves in your mouth and sucking in 2,000 chemical toxins feels pretty weird and unnatural the first time you do it, but sufficient repetition can make even smoking, unfortunately, feel quite natural and normal.
It's really important to understand that anything you do, positive or negative, can come to feel normal, inevitable and natural if you do it enough times. This applies even to behaviours we condemn as atrocity. If people have murdered and maimed and tortured repeatedly, it becomes normal and natural to murder, maim and torture. The more you do something, the more you'll feel right doing it.
The more you practice a mental or physical task, be it arithmetical calculation or playing a tune on the guitar, the more your brain cells wire up neural pathways to make you find these activities easier in future. There's a handy mnemonic to remind us of this fact: "Cells that fire together wire together." Your habits literally shape your brain. It's good if we can shape the brain in ways we want as much as we can.
This all explains why practice is good for learning. Unfortunately, the more people 'practise' bad habits, the better they learn them too! And the more easily that bad habit gets automatically wheeled out. So someone might fully intend to steer clear of the TV and work on their dissertation but, hey presto, they go to make a cup of tea and before they know it their brain cells are firing in such a way as to have them switching on the TV quicker than you can say "wasted opportunity".
How much repetition does it take?
Just how much repetition do you need to establish a new habit? Some people say you need to do something seven times before the neuronal pathways are nice and clear, to make the habitual road an easier and faster journey, and others say that, of course, it depends on individual differences. Some people will master a guitar piece or a dance routine after just a dozen repetitions while others may need many more for the habit of the new learning to become established.
Psychologist Phillippa Lally recently headed a study which tested how quickly new behaviours, such as exercising mid-morning, or eating fruit every day, became automatic in 96 undergrads with a mean average age of 27. She and her team found that, of the 82 participants who saw the study through to the end, the most common pattern of habit formation was for early repetitions of the chosen behaviour to produce the largest increases in automaticity. Over time, further increases in automaticity dwindled, until a plateau was reached beyond which extra repetitions made no further difference to the automaticity achieved.
The average time to reach maximum 'automaticity' - by which time the habit was ingrained - was 66 days. However, the range varied greatly between participants, from 18 days to much longer than 66.
Now to me 66 days seems a pretty long time to establish a new healthy pattern (it's more than two months!). I think 18 days, the quickest time this study identified, is what everyone should be going for.
Hypnosis and accelerated habit formation
And I would suggest that the skilled use of hypnosis can greatly speed up this process. For example, I once helped a man whose habit of smoking himself into a fug had been continuous for some 45 years. It took around thirty minutes with him deeply hypnotized to help him acquire the 'virtual' experience of years and years of being a non-smoker. I talked about how, "one day, this day will be five... ten... fifteen... twenty... years ago". I then got him to feel as if he had already experienced all this future time as a natural and easy non-smoker. I suggested he experience seasons, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases, all as a future non-smoker going through typical days without even thinking about cigarettes. By the time he came out of trance he felt as if his new non-smoking habit wasn't 'new' at all, and that he had been free of cigarettes for many years. And this is how we can encourage new healthy habits in an amazingly accelerated way.
I want my clients to really experience inwardly what it's like to feel that a new positive habit is long-standing and deeply embedded.
You can try this for yourself. Think about a new habit you want to form (which may be a replacement for an older unhealthy one) and practise self-hypnotically experiencing a 'typical day' in your mind with this new habit, and many such days, and reaching the point where the habit is truly 'second nature'. This is a surprisingly powerful technique.
This approach has been validated by research as well as our own clinical experience.
A famous piece of research showed that mental rehearsal wires the brain in the same way as actual rehearsal. Basketball players who practised a new move in their minds, without actually doing it for real, were able to accomplish the move as well as - and often even better than - players who only practised it for real. This is because you can always do something 'perfectly' in your mind. So the new habitual skill was acquired purely through hypnotic means.
So practising that new basketball move or that new piano piece in your mind, with your eyes closed, even though you might be miles from a basketball court or a piano keyboard, can help you get better at those activities because you are deepening the right neuronal pathways. A new habit, any new habit, can and (I think) should be practised mentally to speed up the process of making it automatic. And the best way to practise something mentally is to learn effective self hypnosis.
So there are three takeaway ideas I want you to keep in mind.
- Firstly: What you repeatedly do is what you become - "cells that fire together wire together".
- Secondly: Repetition is key to replacing unwanted habits with beneficial ones.
- Thirdly: Hypnosis can help the brain feel as if a new habit is already deeply established very quickly.
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