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How to master your habits: top tips for replacing the bad with the good

Much of what we do each day is the same as every other day, both at work and at home. That means habits are guiding what and when we eat and exercise, how we deal with family, business contacts and strangers, and how we conduct our careers. 

And that’s a good thing in many situations, says neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay, director of The Neuroscience Academy and author of The Women's Brain Book. “Your brain doesn’t want to be thinking about everything you do all the time, so it automates many behaviours. Habits are any automatic behaviour, thought or feeling, and they free up the brain’s attention for what is important.”

But sometimes this useful brain technique leads us astray when it comes to our lives and career – whether it’s drinking too much alcohol, or binge streaming when you should be working on your new business.

Willpower is not enough


While it’s easy to decide to eliminate bad habits, research shows simply wanting to ditch them and replace them with good habits is tough.

“When you establish a habit, the behaviour moves from the cortex of the brain to the striatum. Once a behaviour becomes a habit, it’s there for good, as it is fixed within the brain,” explains McKay.

Even if you succeed in replacing a bad habit with a better behaviour, the original behaviour remains written into the striatum. It’s like trying to unlearn how to ride a bike.

Simply deciding to stop a bad habit is an unlikely way to succeed.

“Willpower is not enough to overcome a habit as it is a finite resource. A better solution is to reinforce an alternative behaviour with an incentive.”

Know your triggers

Before you get too depressed, it’s worth knowing you can break a habit.

“They are not like physical addictions, which are extremely hard to break,” notes McKay.

Habits are typically context-related, so there is a trigger or cue for your automatic behaviour. So one way to change the unwanted habit is by removing the trigger or cue.

A simple example is always eating chocolates after dinner; get rid of the chocolate and you’re not tempted to eat it. “If you can understand the situation or cue and can remove it, you may eliminate the habit.”

Replace bad habits with good ones

Instead of trying to stop bad habits, like always being late for meetings, practise a new behaviour, such as always arriving five minutes early.

“If you need to replace a bad habit, it’s not good enough to say you won’t do it anymore. You’ll need a new behaviour as a replacement. That’s because the original habit is permanent and can’t be deleted.”

Our brains also respond positively to rewards, so use this knowledge to help make changes.

“Inserting an incentive into the process is appealing to the brain. The reinforcement doesn’t need to be a treat, it could be as simple as focussing on the positive emotions you will feel from achieving your goal.”

A key point to remember is, habits are not morally good or bad, they are just an automatic behaviour, like touch typing or driving a car.

Capitalise on change


Alterations in your life – like starting a new job – can be a good time to eliminate habit triggers and insert more positive behaviours.

The brain is more receptive to change at these times and is willing to modify existing habits as the old cues are no longer in place, creating the opportunity to form a new habit.

It’s the same with a very stressful event.

“Trauma can lead to the sudden emergence of a new habitual behaviour or emotion. This is because the brain may decide it was important, due to the emotional significance of the event,” says McKay.

Rather than encouraging stressful events as ways of learning new habits, she suggests using this knowledge to your advantage. Capitalise on new contexts and challenges by practising new behaviours at a time your brain is receptive to change.

Use the power of visualisation

Neuroscience also shows visualisation can be a valuable weapon for overcoming bad habits.

“Elite athletes practise their routines and behavioural responses to different events in their mind, so their responses become automatic – or a habit.”

You can do the same thing by visualising yourself performing a desired behaviour – or good habit – in your mind until it becomes automatic. To do this successfully requires a defined scenario and clear picture of the behaviour.

“Engage all your senses and practice how you will respond emotionally to specific situations, like giving a presentation. Practise being in the room with a clear script of what you will say and feel,” explains McKay.

“Anyone can do this. Mental rehearsal of the emotional response to an event is a great way to regulate your emotions. They almost become like a memory.”

Expect to lapse

It’s important to give yourself a break if you have a bad habit that’s hard to shake.

“A key point to remember is, habits are not morally good or bad, they are just an automatic behaviour, like touch typing or driving a car. The brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad habits … We are the ones that add moral layering.”

Colonial First State Investments Limited ABN 98 002 348 352, AFSL 232468 (Colonial First State) is the issuer of the FirstChoice range of super and pension products from the Colonial First State FirstChoice Superannuation Trust ABN 26 458 298 557. Colonial First State also issues interests in products made available under FirstChoice Investments and FirstChoice Wholesale Investments. This document may include general advice but does not take into account your individual objectives, financial situation or needs. You should read the relevant Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) and Financial Services Guide (FSG) carefully, assess whether the information is appropriate for you, and consider talking to a financial adviser before making an investment decision. The PDS and FSG can be obtained from or by calling us on 13 13 36.

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