I don’t know about you, but I think New Year’s Resolutions suck.
If I want to change something, I want to do it now. Why wait until the middle of winter when I’ve just over-indulged and it’s cold and dark outside? Surely that’s the hardest time to do anything new and make it stick for the long run.
Well, if you’re like me and immediately want to change an unhelpful habit to something more helpful, healthy or relaxing, then this little golden nugget from our Bite-size behaviour module ‘Don’t just be well, be awesome’ is for you!
OK. Are you sitting comfortably? The key to changing your habits to become a force for good is to change the filling in your habit sandwich.
Let me explain what the heck I’m on about.
The mighty Charles Duhigg in his great book ‘The Power of Habit’ illustrates that habits are made up of three parts… a cue or trigger, which creates an action, which results in a craved or desired reward.
The trigger and the reward are the bread in your habit sandwich. We cannot get away from triggers in our lives – stressful situations, boredom, emotional reactions, mental patterns – big and small life events have a nasty habit of happening whether we want them to or not. And us humans will always want rewards – feeling satisfied, inspired, comforted, helpful, like we’ve achieved something – these are things that we crave.
Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is a fantastic first step when it comes to unlocking habits. But going one step further and paying attention to our sandwich filling (aka action) is one of the best things I’ve learnt for changing unconstructive, unhealthy or pointless habits into actions that are much more beneficial to me (and the people around me).
Here’s a personal example – a cue or trigger of feeling stressed or anxious for me could include being presented with a brand new project or level of responsibility, navigating a risky challenge like trying to buy a flat or doing something scary like free-diving*. These things might make me want to hit the snooze button and stay in bed or avoid the thing entirely because of the emotions it conjures.
I crave the reward of feeling more relaxed, calm, clear-headed, to rid my mind and body of the uncomfortable feelings or to feel like I’ve achieved something, but it seems a long way away!
For me, an unhelpful selection of actions in the middle of this sandwich could be to:
  • Have a glass of wine

  • Procrastinate by doing anything else – but namely more pleasant or easier jobs (the washing, tidying, admin, researching holiday destinations)

  • Distracting myself by watching TV or playing Candy Crush (don’t judge me!) or checking instagram, YouTube or Facebook for something that will life my mood and stop me from thinking about the great big elephant in the room

Now, these actions don’t feel that helpful for me. They’re fine in small measure, but if they’re my go-to action for that trigger and reward, then I will not be helping myself at all in the long-term, let alone the short-term!
Here’s where the wonderful Mr Duhigg helped me to realise that I could come up with a different set of actions to get the same reward from the trigger. Here’s my list of substitute actions I use every time I manage to have the awareness to see what’s happening – I purposely made them easy and super simple to give myself the best chance possible of choosing them over the other, less productive options:
  • Go for a 5+ min walk around the block or to the park (fresh air and nature always changes my state of mind and perspective!)

  • Talk to a friend or teammate to get the problem out in the open (a problem shared really is often a problem halved!)

  • Do a minute of breathing or mindfulness or some stretching (feeling your body helps to reduce your stress response and calm your mind down)

  • Ask my boss for guidance / re-prioritisation support

  • Step back from the situation and then write everything that’s on my mind down (it’s normally worse in my head than on paper!)

  • Delete Candy Crush from my phone and replace it with ’Duolingo’ so that I learn a language instead of looking at pretty colours for my quick dopamine hit

  • Use the Pomodoro technique to chunk my work into small sections and give me small breaks (take that mountain one step at a time)

These are just a few things on my list. Each feels like a MUCH better option when I notice I’ve been triggered and am in search of a reward. Sometimes I go back to my original actions, but it happens much less often.
Have a go at spotting your triggers and rewards and re-write the list of fillings for your own habit sandwiches.
And keep in mind the fantastic words of the late Aaliayh – if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.
*And before you ask… yes I have tried it. Yes it was scary. Yes it was amazing!

By Emily Lowe