How many times have you decided to make a major change to your life, only to be scuppered almost instantly by your old habits?

It’s not really your fault. Habits are formed over time and are incredibly difficult to break. The very nature of a habit ensures you find yourself doing it before consciously thinking of it.

The part of your brain that makes these things happen before you’ve actively decided needs re-wiring. That takes time. Until that impulse has been muted or erased, you’re going to have to rely on willpower alone.

Or do you?

I often use a particular strategy with clients when trying to break a habit. I call it the Speed Bump method. Boiled down, it involves identifying the habit we want to break or lessen, and putting small barriers in the way of it. These barriers are never enough to make it impossible to still do “the thing”, but they make it impossible for the person to mindlessly indulge the habit. They give pause and a chance to make a decision with the “active” part of the brain.

Some examples?

If you’re trying to cut down on alcohol, going cold turkey rarely works or is that enjoyable. There’s a world of difference between cutting down, and cutting out. But, to remove the ease of pouring that glass, try:

  • Not keeping white wine chilled. You’re less likely to drink it warm, and by the time you chill it, you’ll probably have decided not to have one.
  • Same with beer – keep it in the airing cupboard. No-one likes warm beer.
  • Keeping all alcohol somewhere inconvenient – a garage or shed, where you’re far less likely – especially in winter – to bother going and getting it.

Some of these sound daft? They’re meant to. They’re intended as things that will make you pause and think “do I really want this?” If the answer is still “hell yes, it’s been a shitty day” then fine – go ahead, but at least you had to make a decision, rather than find a bottle has been opened with no real thought behind it.

How about food? Well, you’ve got to identify your “problem” food first. I know someone – let’s call him Dave because that’s his name – who struggles not to eat a whole tub of ice cream. Our first speed bump would be to just not buy it; but we all know where that will end. Restrict anything too much and the pressure builds until a binge is almost inevitable. So, try buying the small pots of ice cream instead. These are more like 250kcals, and you have to make an active decision to open a second pot – rather than convincing yourself you’ve only eaten ¼ of a tub, when it’s more like half…

Biscuits your thing? Don’t buy full packs – go online and buy the mini packs you get in hotels. Three biscuits is a lot better than half a pack, and to eat more, you’ll have to actively open another bag. Again, it’s not going to necessarily stop you, but it’s going to make you pause and think, and make these decisions deliberate, rather than semi-automatic.

This strategy is age-old. People have used speed bumps without really knowing it for ages – we’ve all probably deleted someone’s number in the past to prevent ourselves texting or calling someone we probably shouldn’t. It won’t stop you finding the number again, but it stops the automatic impulse.

Try and think of all the situations and areas in your life that you’re trying to change. Try and identify where you’re making decisions on autopilot – then create your own speedbumps to slowly nudge your behaviour into a healthier direction.

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