Written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
Do you do something that you would rather you didn’t? Perhaps finishing your plate of food when already full, or leaving the washing up in the sink after dinner, only to regret the messy sink in the morning? Or perhaps you wish that you automatically had a certain response? Maybe recognising that you are full so that you automatically stop putting food in your mouth, or routinely washing up the dishes after a meal as standard.
What is a habit?
A habit is a behaviour or action that you tend to do in a given situation. It only takes an instant to develop a habit, just by doing it! The key is for repetition to make that habit stick. This blog explores how habits are formed and how you can easily and effectively develop or change habits. However, let’s start with stopping an old habit.
To stop doing something, whether it is smoking cigarettes, arguing with your kids, or getting angry when your colleague parks in your favourite place in the car park (strategically located for a quick exit perhaps), the first step is to recognise that what you’re doing is a habit. Remember, if it is your ‘go to’ action in that situation, it is a habitual response. You could, of course, simply decide to not do that again. However, as habits tend to happen outside of conscious awareness, the next time you are in a situation where you would normally respond that way, it is likely to happen. For example, perhaps you usually smoke a cigarette after your evening meal. The first night, you might deliberately stop yourself from smoking. You may even remember to do that again the next night. However, on the third evening, maybe you are talking to a friend, or looking at your phone as you finish your meal. Without conscious thought you are more likely to reach for a cigarette, especially if they are to hand. Why is this? I am going to explain this using ‘the field metaphor’.
Imagine a field of grass. Long, glorious green grass. There is a border around the field, perhaps a fence, or maybe some hedges or bushes. The are also two gates on opposite sides of the field. As you need to cross the field every day, you may choose a direct path from one gate to another on that first day of crossing the field. Why? Well, your mind is smart and will usually choose the most logical solution to a problem. There will be some effort involved as you will, on some level, be paying attention to how you are walking and checking on the route and what you can observe as you do so. So, a bit of conscious effort.
On the second day, if the first day’s path worked for you, then you are likely to do it the same way again. Why? Well, the first day will have trampled the grass, so not only is it the route that worked fine the day before (e.g., you didn’t fall down a rabbit hole), it will also be easier as walking along the path will be less effort physically and you will need to pay less conscious attention as the route is already a bit familiar. On each subsequent day, the route gets easier and easier, a ‘right of way’ in a sense, and before long, you can quite comfortably, if you wished, day dream or run through plans in your mind, whilst walking across that same old path.
This is a metaphor for how a habit can be formed. Simply do something once, and then keep repeating it, until it becomes so easy that it is no longer a deliberate and conscious choice, more an automatic behaviour. However, at some point, perhaps the farmer who owns the field replaces the gate and puts it a bit further up the field. Or you want to walk to a different gate that you notice. You might find that you automatically start walking on that old path and, at some point, you will need to consciously intervene and change direction to the new gate. That will take effort. Alternatively, you may notice the gate move at the start (or already know about it), and so decide to start a new path to the new gate. The first few days, you will need to consciously, deliberately have the intention of walking the new path, and follow through and do it. Then, gradually it will become easier until it is automatic. Could you, unintentionally walk the old path? Yes, although the likelihood becomes less and less, the more you use the new path. Even better, that old path will start to become overgrown and less of a visible choice. You will become accustomed to the new route. In the same way, you can choose to change a habit and repetition is what makes that habit stick.
This field metaphor is a good way of explaining habit change to hypnotherapy clients. Of course, you could give a neuroscience explanation and talk in terms of neural pathway formation, and how those pathways strengthen with repetition, even that the messages along the pathway actually get faster and faster. Or, you might give a metaphorical explanation or use an example of a complex behaviour that can become automatic, such as walking across a path in a field. There are other simple metaphors that work too, such as riding a bike, riding a horse, driving a car, or even tying your shoelaces…
How much repetition is needed for the behaviour to ‘stick’? It really does depend on a number of factors. Firstly, how significant the old behaviour was, whether it was an occasional behaviour or something much more frequent. The stronger the old behavioural pathway, the more compelling an alternative would need to be. A second factor to consider would be how unique that new behaviour was, and how often the repetition will occur. If it is a distinct action, repeated often, it will more easily form a stronger path than a ‘similar to something else’ behaviour, that you would only repeat occasionally.
How to change a habit
So how do we change habits? It starts with the identification of the old habit and a decision about a new habit. Why replace it? Let’s use an example of smoking cessation. Perhaps you know of friends or colleagues who have simply stopped smoking and then report having put on weight. This is commonly because one oral habit is replaced by another. If you don’t deliberately, consciously choose a new habit as replacement, the subconscious mind will; as it will attempt to avoid a void. Knowing that the subconscious will replace a behaviour if you don’t, it is far better to intentionally replace that old smoking habit with a new desirable habit.
Generally, the replacement habit forms better if it meets the present intention of the old habit. So, imagine that it is John who wants to stop smoking. He realises that he smokes whenever he is hungry, as it takes away his hunger, but he wants to stop smoking. So, to replace that old habit with a new one of deep breathing is an option, yet not a strong replacement. A stronger replacement might be to offer an equal or better replacement for the smoking’s purpose, such as having a tall glass of water. This is then something he can do each time he would have normally smoked, and will also reduce his feelings of hunger. Thus, it is a clear distinct action that can be easily repeated.
Hypnotherapy for habit change
All of this can, of course, be conducted out of hypnosis, although identifying the present intention of the old habit can often be more easily ascertained by using analytical hypnotherapy approaches.
Where hypnotherapy is also highly effective is within future pacing and mental rehearsal. The replacement habit can be explored within future pacing as an ‘ecology check’ to establish whether it is the ideal replacement. Indeed, a number of possible replacement behaviours could be tested out for fit and the best one then selected. Mental rehearsal can then be taught to the client so that they can vividly imagine themselves carrying out their new behaviour. Firstly, in ideal situations, thus building those initial pathways, then, if relevant, considering possible obstacles (such as other times/reasons when they used to smoke) and experience themselves engaging with their new behaviour in those situations as well. Although this can be done simply with eyes closed and engagement of the imagination (see, hear, feel, smell, taste), it can be even more powerful when using the natural hypnotic phenomena within hypnosis/self-hypnosis to enhance the process.
If you’re a therapist and would like to learn how to change clients habits with hypnotherapy, join us on one of our upcoming free hypnotherapy taster days, where you can learn more about further training options:
We hope you enjoyed this blog on how to change a habit. If you have any questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks