Naturally, we humans are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the routines and regular rituals that punctuate our days. The thing is that while some of our habits can be pretty positive (ringing your mum every Wednesday, finishing off the weekend with a souped-up bath every Sunday, et al), some of them we'd rather weasel our way out of.
Of course, by nature, vices aren't that easy to ditch. Just as it is tricky to turn a behaviour into a habit, it can be equally tricky shaking off that habit once it's had time to settle in. Which means that if you're looking to curb something, it's going to take some hard work.
But—where there's a will, there's a way. Or so mind coach Anna Williamson promises us. We checked in with the expert to find out whether learning a new habit is possible for all of us and how to start (and stick to) a healthy habit.
Can anyone learn a new habit?
When you consider that every little thing we do in a ritualistic way is basically a habit, we actually have a lot more of them than we give ourselves credit for. "We all have habits, from brushing our teeth a certain way to the way we tie our shoelaces, we all build day-to-day habits into our routine from our childhood upwards," explains Williamson. "Other habits and behaviours that are perhaps not so good for us can also be established at any time, which stems from a choice such as smoking or drinking." In short, you have to put yourself in a situation to start a new habit, but once there, it can be out of your control whether it remains or not.
More positively, however, "anyone can learn a new habit and anyone can break one. It really comes down to how much someone wants it and is prepared to change it. It all comes from within the individual." So there go our excuses.
So how do you break a bad habit?
"Breaking a bad habit is usually best applied in a different environment when normal day-to-day routine is less present, for example, on holiday," she reveals. "If someone wanted to break a smoking habit for example and they were in a habit of lighting up at certain times of the day, on the way to work, during lunch break, etc., the best chance to kick-start breaking the urge is to change the overall daily routine so the triggers aren't in place." So that could mean heading for lunch with a nonsmoking colleague or better still, booking in that holiday you've been dreaming of.
"On holiday, all our usual day-to-day routines, environments and behaviours are completely changed up so the compulsion to serve the habit is also changed up too. It is easier to break a bad habit if the other routine associated behaviours are changed too. It gives the mind a jolt to focus and take note of behaviour that is often otherwise carried out without much thought as the habit is full flow." It makes sense—take yourself out of the environment that perpetuates your bad habits and you have fewer excuses to relent to them.
Does going "cold turkey" ever work?
Quite often, easing yourself away from habits is a process that takes time, but cutting off your habit right here and right now can be beneficial too. "There are many people who swear by going 'cold turkey,' as often committing to the immediate break of the habit is the big gesture someone needs to give it a good chance to succeed. It shows willpower and a strong commitment to change," explains Williamson. Sometimes we need to prove to ourselves how hard we want something—and then we'll be too proud to ruin our winning streak.
On the flipside, how can you start a new habit?
Been meaning to go to bed earlier? Or run home from work once every week? Or commit to five minutes of meditation every evening? "Research suggests that a new habit can take around two months to 'bed in,' but this can, of course, vary from person to person," explains Williamson. "Essentially it's worth taking some time to think about the new desired habit, prepare for it and make changes gradually to ease in. Considering the most appropriate environment and understanding triggers is really key in allowing a new habit to establish."
Suffered many failed Dry January attempts? The key to making a habit stick is all in the timing. "Give yourself the best possible chance to succeed by realising any triggers that you need to be aware of." Your best friend's birthday on 10 Jan? Yep, a month of sobriety was never going to work. You need your life and the people around you to be on your side from the get-go. "Lay the foundations to ensure support and understanding is plentiful, and keep checking in with yourself on how you are getting on with the new habit forming, considering what (if any) tweaks need to be made."
So let's put this in context—how can you start a new habit to get more sleep every night?
"Set your scene and prepare, it's all in the planning and not suddenly springing it on yourself," recommends Williamson. "Give yourself an ideal time to be in bed and then work backwards. Make sure all chores are done a good amount of time before bedtime, plan for the event ahead (a bath, phone off, etc.) and keep sticking to this new routine until it becomes a new habit and automatic practice." Sounds easy, right? Well, let's see…
Anna's latest book, Breaking Mum and Dad: The Insider's Guide to Parenting Anxiety by Anna Williamson (£13) is out now.