June 15, 2016

Secrets to breaking bad habits

A recent CNN program “Vital Signs” focused on the science behind habit.


It suggested that the brain’s ability to register a task goes down significantly once it becomes a habit. For instance, you are sitting on your favorite chair, watching your favorite sport or movie with a bag of chips and a beer. You are unaware of your surrounding and everything that is in your immediate reach is your universe!


It can be said that your brain has essentially stopped registering the activity of eating chips. You don’t know how much you have had, how much you’re supposed to eat and if you are really hungry?


It is commonly referred as “Mindless Eating”. Mindless eating, also a book by Food psychologist Brian Wansink explores how various environmental factors impact your eating behavior and how you can potentially turn around and realize the benefit of your habit to eat healthy.




One of the many experiments conducted by Brian Wansink team, demonstrated a small change in your environment, like tweaking your surrounding which you are interacting with can trigger significant changes.


The research team presented a group of participants with a stack of chips to go with a favorite sitcom. They however replaced every 5th chip in the stack with a purple color chip that tasted the same. At the end of the study it was observed that the participants on an average consumed less chips.

Looks like that the sharp change in color set in motion a mental counter of number of chips that the participant is eating and this possibly allowed mind to reason the activity of eating a little more, leading to controlled eating.


One straightforward way to manage and cope with a bad habit is to change the surrounding, replace an unhealthy snack with something healthy or manage the quantity or keep the snack out of reach. Simple subtle changes go a long way in containing unhealthy snacking.


Breaking the habit is still a different challenge, but making subtle changes to our environment can ensure that you eat healthier at least.


It is said that it takes 18 days to bring about a habit change. A good way for being successful (at breaking a habit) is to set realistic achievable tasks. To help you remember, write down your objectives on a piece of paper, not on a phone or a laptop but on a paper. Written things have known to have a lasting impact on memory.

Once the information is committed in your brain, it can help in breaking a habit. Not sure if older habits are difficult to break, but the older a habit is, it becomes more and more apparent that there is no harm in the habit. You and your surrounding has convinced you to believe so.


Another important aspect while you are going through the process of breaking a bad habit, is to shield yourself from specific situations which have potential to undo all your hard work and drag you back. These situations can be identified as triggers that make it easier for you to non-comply with your stated objectives and deviate you from your plan to break a bad habit. Some common triggers can lead to mindless eating and or shopping.


These triggers sometimes seem harmless, for instance some common triggers for eating can be “I don’t want to waste food” or “its quick and easy”. Some other triggers may be out of your pleasant experiences in the past “I have happy memories of eating this dish”. Sometimes your senses take away your control, “This looks or smells so tempting”.


You need to be conscious of what your triggers are and how they are undoing your hard work by taking you back to square one, when you are pulling all your weight to break a bad habit. If you feeling hungry in between meals, you need to recognize that the hunger is a trigger for mindless eating and you can cope with it by eating something healthy or filling up with water or using a small portion.


There can be numerous other reasons like feeling sad, anxious or bored that can trigger unaccounted snacking. I am sure you can think of ways to find a way to avoid an easy response like eating.

Breaking any habit is a two phase activity, the initial phase which is called a honeymoon phase will eventually lead you to a more permanent state where the new habit is becoming your second nature and old habit is getting replaced.


Setting goals and making a conscious effort reminding yourself why you need to quit and how its benefits to you, outweigh the convenience aspect of the habit.



Eventually being healthy for you or your family can empower you through the first phase where you feel compelled to not do it. It is anything but a honeymoon, however you also start appreciating your will and consciously start respecting your willpower.


For me, recognizing my triggers and setting goals helped me quit smoking. I believe this approach will definitely help in breaking any stubborn old bad habit.


Getting to the health that you want is combination of Diet and Exercise, different experts suggest different combination of these two elements. Crudely, it is about trying to develop new habits (different activities), while managing your old (food) habits.


It is not easy to understand which one is more challenging as it depends on individuals. You are likely to be more successful if you clearly document your objectives, challenges, plans and track them. Unfortunately, documenting is not part of our nature and having someone who can guide you through the process, a friend, a coach can make all the difference.


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