Getting To Where You Want To Go: How To Break Old Habits And Cultivate New Ones

January 23, 2020

Habits are much more powerful than we realise. So often we act out of what we are used to, what we know, and what we have done in the past. They are the invisible architecture of our every day experience. Studies suggest that we repeat about 40 percent of our behaviour almost daily. Habits are formed through repetition. Each time we repeat the same action, we’re teaching ourselves a pattern, and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. As something becomes a habit, we have a less emotional response to it, making it easy to become numb to our own existence.

‘People often tell me, “I understand how important healthy habits are, but I just can’t change my current habit.”

Sometimes we need some real talk on solving problems that can’t be answered by a health and wellness resource – for instance, why we have trouble making healthy choices in the moment. People often tell me, “I understand how important healthy habits are, but I just can’t change my current habit.” During my training in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), I saw that detrimental habits can be modified by focusing on changing patterns, and forming new neural pathways. Imagining your “future self” is one simple, yet powerful tool that can help you connect with your body in the present moment and make healthy choices for life.

Our day-to-day relationship with the food we eat and the way we choose to live our life usually involves balancing the trade-offs between our long term goals and our immediate wants, which are often in conflict. Most people want to look and feel their best in three months… six months… one year from now, yet at the same time they also want their pastry with their mid-morning coffee, the extra serving of pasta at dinner, or the one more glass of wine before going home.

‘We will never be able to fulfil healthy goals if we always have those immediate wants.’

I’d like to make one thing crystal clear: having a healthy relationship with food and having a healthy lifestyle in general doesn’t mean always choosing the long term goal over the immediate want. Obsessiveness around healthy practices is not part of my language; joy is. That said, we will never be able to fulfil healthy goals if we always have those immediate wants. Sometimes we need to be willing to forgo some of those right-now wants some of the time, if fulfilling your long term health goals are important to you.

Oftentimes, despite these long-lens health and wellness goals being important to us, the immediate wants tend to win. Living in a culture which promotes a “me-first” mentality, we can easily fall into the “rewards-you-deserve” trap, especially the ones we can reap instantly. Behaviourists call this the “present bias” where there is a disconnect between the way we think about ourselves right now, and the way we view ourselves in the future; so we often make food and lifestyle choices in the moment that aren’t in our best interest for the long haul.

‘The more actively we can think about our future selves, the easier it becomes to pass up the short term gratification of acting impulsively on food cravings or unhealthy lifestyle choices.’

Without a clear connection to our healthy, thriving, future selves, it can be really challenging to resist those fleeting food and lifestyle impulses. The more actively we can think about our future selves, the easier it becomes to pass up the short term gratification of acting impulsively on food cravings or unhealthy lifestyle choices, in favour of long-term feel good pay-offs. In his book Magic In Practice: Introducing Medical NLP, the art and science of healing and health (1), meta-master practitioner and trainer of NLP, Garner Thomson demonstrates that when you start imagining your future self as an extension of your current self, it’s easier to make decisions in the here-and-now that are in line with what you want for yourself later on.

Designing your future self

Really, it’s all about being able to vividly picture and connect to a realistic and thriving version of yourself in the future. Imagining these possibilities makes your future self dynamic – a true extension of you – that will empower you in the present moment. Here are some guidelines to help get you started:

  • First, identify what new habit(s) you would like to change.
  • Imagine your future self. It must be attractive and relevant to you and your wants. Include as much detail as possible – use all 5 senses as much as you can.
  • Once you have that clear, full colour, richly detailed picture, you can even add a soundtrack that you find particularly uplifting.
  • Invite your present self into the picture. Continue to run the picture i.e. what experiences, learning and resources can your present self learn from your future self? What questions might you ask?
  • When you are ready, bring all those new resources, along with the new habit(s) into your present body and mind.
  • If you have spent enough time really experiencing and associating with your future self, it is unlikely you will need to go through the whole process each time, and you may find that imagining the future version of yourself is enough. If not, give yourself time to go through the full process once again.

‘Prioritising our children’s futures can be very motivating and help shift old patterns.’

If you are a parent, or you’d like to be a parent someday, another helpful way is to connect to the future is to imagine yourself adopting one of the healthy habits you’ve been struggling with, and then picture your children embracing that habit, too. For many of us, myself included, prioritising our children’s futures can be very motivating and help shift old patterns, encouraging us to re-evaluate the way we think about ourselves in the moment and the choices we make.

Healthy habits will eventually become second nature. In the same way you don’t stop to think, “should I wear my seat belt today? I wore it yesterday, so maybe I won’t today,” you just do it – it becomes automatic.

‘Change can occur spontaneously and quickly and in the right direction.’

Contrary to popular belief, change needn’t be hard work either. NLP Master Dr Richard Bandler and his colleagues began to challenge the belief that change is always incremental and takes place over an extended period of time (2). Dr Bandler’s suspicion derived from the speed with which people learned to fear the object of a phobia; that the brain was capable of rapid, or even “one pass” learning. Change can occur spontaneously and quickly and in the right direction. The body-mind system had an “inner wisdom” that always moves towards auto-regulation, given the right circumstances.

Change can be experienced in many different ways. The old habit may simply fade away. Or it may occur less frequently, or your nervous system may simply “forget” how to do it. For others, it may intensify, until it goes over a threshold, rather like an over-inflated balloon bursting. In all these events, simply stay open and curious, allowing whatever happens to happen in its own way.

The key requirements of habit changing

In order to make change possible you need to want change in the first place; understand that you can change; know how to change; and notice that change has taken, or is taking place.

Below, I share some additional resources to further support you on your journey towards breaking old habits and cultivating new ones.

‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up some place else.’ Lawrence Peter Berra

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RESOURCES

Once Upon A Food Story: How To Change The Way You Eat, Think, And Live For The Rest Of Your Life

I believe food is a powerful tool for transformation, but your relationship with food can provide you with a deeper dive into self-discovery. You have a unique “food story,” that is multi-layered and written over many years. But what you eat is only half the story. The psychophysiological aspect to the way you approach food is a vital and often overlooked element of your health picture.

How To Set Intentions And Thrive

In this post, I share one of the tools I’ve been using for a while now. The Thrive Tracker is a simple resource I originally created as a way for me and my husband to step up our self-care. Though we’re pretty good about following my wellness pillars (being mindful about what we’re thinking, eating, drinking, and how we’re moving, resting and renewing), it’s hard to really know unless you track your actions. Click here to download the Thrive Tracker

The 3 Sources Game Changers

Your must have beginners guide on how to prepare and create optimally balanced delicious meals the (mostly) plant based way. And the best news… it isn’t complicated, overwhelming or time consuming and you don’t need recipes. Includes a downloadable cheat sheet, seasonality table and prep guide. Three actionable tools you can implement today to set you on the right track to living more optimally, one meal at a time. Small steps. Big wins. Click here to download the 3 Sources Game Changers.

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REFERENCES

(1) Thomson, G; Khan, Khalid (2015). Magic In Practice: Introducing Medical NLP: The Art and Science of Language in Healing. Hammersmith Health Books, London.

(2) Bandler, R (1993). Time for a Change. Capitola, CA. Meta Publications.

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