Do you have any habits? Things that you do without thinking about them? Everyone does.
We develop habits to reduce our “cognitive load” – the need to pay attention to something that we’d be better off not thinking about. Like shutting the front door when we come into a house or turning off a tap after washing our hands.
Imagine a situation where you had to actively remember to pay attention to all the things you normally did automatically? You wouldn’t have time to think about anything else.
Our brains develop a way of triggering automatic responses to our environment.
This “stimulus-response” process is how we get to do things without thinking about them.
Now think about a habit that you want to change. It doesn’t make sense to do it anymore, it is exposing you to risk or it is causing you harm. If the response to the stimulus doesn’t change, you end up with the same outcome to a goal you no longer have.
Research suggests that people with substance use disorders have greater difficulty overcoming habitual responses to stimuli. This means that a series of relapses can occur because achieving new goals and making them habits is particularly hard. Simply put, it is harder for someone with a history of addiction to make changes compared to people with no history of addiction.
Interestingly, there is no difference in learning new behaviours for people with addiction when you compare them with others. The problem seems to be as we adopt new behaviours it remains that much harder to shake off well-learned associations – the saying that ‘old habits die hard’ seems to be the case.
But new habits can be learned easily and in a straightforward way. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that people with addiction histories learn new things faster than anyone else. With the right training and practice, people with addiction can and will develop new habits.
There is no need to think that having a long-term addiction is an inevitable choice that we can’t change. We could describe addiction as a goal-directed behaviour (something we have thought about and want to do) that becomes a habit-based process (something we aren’t thinking about but do anyway).
Habit develops as a consequence of reinforcement. This takes place by repetition of the same behaviour until it becomes automatic.
As far back as 1947 Kurt Lewin looked idea of how we respond to change and the role of groups in supporting the process. His approach was simple: a three-step change model which has formed the basis of much change theory ever since:
We know that we are often unwilling to change and might be resistant to making changes and facing the unknown.
Think about a change you are experiencing at the moment. Ask yourself:
“What am I doing that stops me from making the changes I need to make and why?”
To be effective in instigating change, there should be a clear set of facts to share. These facts should be short and to the point.
‘What is the change I want to make?
What does that look like?
What do I want to think, feel and do differently?”
Importantly, these change facts need to be communicated in a particular way: face to face.
What is going on when we are influenced to make a lasting behavioural change? In 2010, leading psychologist Paul Dolan joined a multidisciplinary team with the UK government to come up with low-cost, low-pain way of ‘nudging’ people into new ways of acting.
For Dolan, our behaviour is a lot more ‘automatic’ than we might think. We can, therefore, achieve change more easily by “going with the grain” of how people normally think and act.
First, we can try to change minds. If we change the way someone can think about things, then the likelihood of changing their behaviour increases.
Second, we can try to change behaviour. This is done by changing someone’s “contextual cues” – the choices that we make by habit. If we can influence the way someone makes a choice then we can change their behaviour.
Learning then doing
You can make changes by influencing what you think about and how you think about it. This is simply about learning something new that you want to remember, get better at and stick with.
Change begins with ‘unlearning’ habits and then adopting new ones. In this way, it’s no different to learning any new skill or changing the way you apply an existing skill. Like learning to speak a foreign language and then needing to drive on the other side of the road when you visit on holiday.
Change is far is easier if you do it with others too – in a support group, with a psychologist, counsellor or therapist. They will have a shared interest in helping you and can give you new knowledge or skills. You also have a place to practice new ways of doing things and be supported if you find it hard.
You will soon find that you begin to think and act differently. You might be surprised when others notice the changes before you do. You will have picked up new habits without thinking too much about it. That is the easiest yet most profound way in which positive change takes place.