Think back to when you first started driving. As you pulled away from the curb, checking mirrors, blind spots, releasing the clutch, gently accelerating, moving the steering wheel, changing gears, reading signposts, predicting traffic, watching out for pedestrians… Our mind is continually assessing and responding to what is happening. Do you remember how it felt like you were following an instruction manual? I am always amazed that I can do all of this, and get off at the right junction on the motorway without having an accident whilst thinking about what I need to get at the shops. Experts call this auto-pilot.
Auto-pilots – or habits – develop when we continually repeat patterns of behaviour. We rely on auto-pilot heavily as it allows us to function efficiently and multi-task. The more automatic the behaviour, the less focus and concentration we need. That’s how we can think about other things and at the same time do what we need to do. And as we repeat the behaviour more, the habit becomes more ingrained.
The same rules apply to unhealthy eating habits. The more we repeat them, the more ingrained they become.
So, how do we change an ingrained habit?
1. Switch off the autopilot
Bring focus and awareness to every action related to to the habit you are trying to change and make it more of a manual process. It’s easy to slip back into auto-pilot without even noticing it. Making our decisions conscious helps us stay on track with changing bad habits.
2. Remind yourself
Put reminders everywhere to help you keep the habit you want to change at the forefront of your mind and at the forefront of every action you take today. For example post notes on your mirror, and alerts on your phone.
3. Prepare and plan
Have a think about where the pitfalls might be and where you risk falling into old patterns. Set your intention for the day at the beginning of each day and plan for making the change. If you know you are going to Aunt Hilda’s for tea today, consciously set your intention to have one piece of cake and no more.
If you want to stop doing something unhealthy, find a healthy alternative to replace the old habit.
5. Practice makes perfect
Keep repeating the new habit to allow automatic pilot to develop around the healthy behaviour. Research suggests that it takes over 21 repetitions to form a new habit.
6. Allow for setbacks
Remember to include setbacks as part of the experimental process that enables us to learn what works and what doesn’t work. That is what propels us towards our goal.
7. Write it down
Documenting our process in the form of a daily journal will help to keep out of autopilot and aware.
8. Keep going
We only fail if we stop trying.