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Pourquoi est-ce si difficile (mais pas impossible) de changer d’habitude ?

Many of you are taking advantage of the new year to implement some changes in your life. In the fire of renewal, all the good wills are at their maximum for a more or less utopian life. But what will happen in the long run? How many of you will maintain your commitment? By explaining how your brain works, we invite you to better understand the mechanisms to build new habits and thus put all the chances on your side. 

40% of your daily life is managed by your habits

The cervix is a fabulous machine but oh so lazy! Your brain likes the easy way out: when a neural pathway is well anchored, it is difficult to change it... But difficult does not mean impossible! With a good understanding of your "programming" mechanisms and a suitable plan, you can claim to be able to change your habits within a few weeks and this is thanks to the neuroplasticity of your brain

A habit is an unconsciously and deeply rooted routine. Take the example of the first things you do as soon as you wake up: we all have a personal routine that we perform without really thinking every day like automatons. 

Habits are a huge labor saver for your brain. This way, he can afford to take on other tasks and manage the unexpected. It is interesting to note that these habits, the ones you don't even pay attention to anymore, represent 40% of your daily life. It is therefore normal and understandable that it is extremely uncomfortable to change one's routine, whether it is good or not. 

In this regard, the brain does not differentiate between a beneficial routine and one that would be much less so. What matters to him is to receive his "dose" of endorphins when the desire is satisfied. This is what we call the neurology of desire. 

The 3 phases of a habit

A habit is therefore a neural pathway in your brain leaving. To be built, it must respond to 3 phases which are :

  1. The signal: external stimuli that will trigger a secretion of dopamine thus pushing you to take action (stress, strong emotion, place, people ...)
  2. Routine: action that follows from the signal (lighting a cigarette, biting your nails, drinking a glass of alcohol, playing video games...)
  3. The reward: secretion of endorphins, feeling of well-being and accomplishment. The reward strengthens the link between the signal and the routine.

The habits lodge in the basal ganglia (or basal ganglia) in the center of your brain. This area remains active even if the rest of your brain is damaged! 

What causes relapse?

As mentioned up front, the brain likes ease and economy of work. Everything that is familiar and comfortable will interfere with the creation of new neural pathways. On the other hand, external factors such as social pressure and especially the anticipation of the reward will further complicate the reprogramming phase. 

Duhigg named the "keystone habits" which represent the most beneficial habits in your life. They are a source of personal motivation that serves as a basis for establishing a virtuous circle. In short, start with your "good" habits and change the ones you don't like. 

Also, self-discipline is key to your success. Self-discipline is not the most motivating thing, it's true (don't worry, it can be worked on!)... but it helps you develop a long-term vision, unlike the instant gratification of your desires which locks you into a limiting pattern of permanent non-satisfaction. 

How can we change our habits?

When you look at the 3 phases of a habit, you may realize that (1) and (3) are the most important because the mere idea of the reward (3) to the stimulus (1) is enough to derail your attempt to change. 

Thus, you can proceed as follows: 

  • Take the 3 phases of the habit in question and analyze the signal (1)and the reward (3)
  • Then find a routine (2) beneficial substitution

or :

  • Identify the routine (2), the reward (3) and the signal (1) (in that order).
  • develop a plan that can be summarized in 1 sentence. Example:

When I feel stressed (signal), then I will practice cardiac coherence (routine) because it will calm me down (reward)

To effectively change your routine, it is recommended to create as many triggers as possible and to start with the least restrictive routine. 

How long does it take to change a habit?

It is common to hear that it takes 21 days (that's 3 weeks) to deprogram and reprogram a new habit. In reality, this would be an average because it all depends on your real interest in changing this habit. Indeed, sometimes - often - the reasons are not strong enough to trigger a real transformation work. 

To change your habits, you have to be willing to go through some uncomfortable, painful and questioning moments. If you don't think you can do it alone, there are professionals who can help you through this transition. I repeat, change is difficult but not impossible for those who give themselves the means to succeed!

Alexia Bernard
6 January, 2020
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