This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

How Neuroplasticity Can Help You Get Rid Of Your Bad Habits

In as little as three weeks.
Neuroplasticity is basically a way to retrain your brain.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Neuroplasticity is basically a way to retrain your brain.

Bad habits: we all have them. Whether it's something seemingly insignificant like biting your nails (guilty) or something more serious, like smoking, everyone probably has at least one unsavoury habit they'd like to kick.

The trouble, of course, is that it's hard to do. If you've spent years and years doing the same thing, whether consciously or unconsciously, it's not so easy to wake up one day and say 'well that's it, I'm done.'

However, that's not to say breaking a habit is impossible. In fact, neuroleadership specialist and author of the new book 'Traction', Kristen Hansen, says the key lies in a relatively simple process called neuroplasticity.

What is neuroplasticity?

Put simply, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adapt and change. By forming new neural connections throughout life, the brain is able to 'reorganise' itself and adapt to our changing needs.

Self directed neuroplasticity is the ability to change your own brain, which is the process Hansen says can assist with changing our habits.

How do bad habits form?

"Habits form as shortcuts, as a way to save us time or money or to make us feel good," Hansen told HuffPost Australia.

"So one example is if you're stressed and you reach for a lolly, it's a way to feel good in a not so good moment. If you do that again, or a third time, it can turn into a habit.

Want to give smoking the flick? This could be worth a try.
Cludio Policarpo / EyeEm via Getty Images
Want to give smoking the flick? This could be worth a try.

"These shortcuts become hardwired because they become stronger neural pathways. And I'm not just talking about the big [habits] like smoking or overeating, but every single habit, and that can be something like hitting the snooze button on your alarm every morning.

"Any time that occurs, you are creating a habit."

How can I break my bad habits?

1. Identify your habits

Firstly, it's worth pointing out not all habits need to be broken. In fact, there is such a thing as really positive habits that should be encouraged.

"The first thing is to have a look at how much of the things we do in life have just become habits that are not serving us," Hansen said.

Not all habits are bad.
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Not all habits are bad.

"Many of our habits do serve us. So if we exercise five days a week, that's a healthy habit.

"I guess the main thing is to identify which parts of your life are habits that serve you versus not the ones that aren't serving you.

"Identifying them and labelling them is the first step."

2. Understand how to change the brain

According to Hansen, it's not really possible to simply get rid of a habit. The key is actually to replace one habit with another.

"We best create new neural pathways by being more mindful," Hansen said. "If we bring a conscious awareness to our response, we can shift how we respond."

Know your triggers.
Anchiy via Getty Images
Know your triggers.

"Once you become aware of your triggers, next, we'll look to build in a replacement response," Hansen continued. "This is a 'high-road' response, our alternative to the default.

"The idea is for every time we have the urge or stimulus for the habit, to have an alternative habit we pay more attention to. If you want a lolly because you're stressed, turn the jug on for a cup of tea instead."

3. Be mindful of the goal

In order to help you stay on track, Hansen says it's important to have a clear understanding of your end goal.

"Ask yourself not only 'What do I want to achieve and by when', but also 'What would it look like and how will I feel when I get there?' she said.

What does your goal look like?
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What does your goal look like?

"Bring the goal alive in your brain through creative visualisation and by engaging your emotions.

"For example, 'I will be a non-smoker by Dec and I'll see a healthier, fitter person. I'll feel happier, proud and confident'."

4. Pay attention to the new habit we want to form

We've already established the idea of replacing your 'bad' habit with a new, more positive action, but Hansen says it's important to really invest in your new habit if you want it to stick.

"Attention can be defined in quantity and quality -- so how often and how closely we pay attention to something," she said.

Changing your ways can be hard, but worth it.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Changing your ways can be hard, but worth it.

"It's important because neuroplasticity requires attention to the new neural pathway for it to form.

"We can put reminders in our phone, have a coach, or share our goal with our partner. All of these are great ways to create frequent reminders of what we're trying to achieve."

5. Give yourself positive feedback

While this may sound a bit corny, Hansen says it's a crucial part of neuroplasticity process.

"Reward yourself for the small wins, rather than spending so much time beating ourselves up for the things we aren't doing perfectly," she said.

"This positive feedback helps us because it ends up becoming a bit of a 'hit' for our brains. When we say 'good on you' to ourselves or someone else says that, dopamine is released. Then our brain becomes addicted. It's giving ourselves our own carrot, so to speak."

Positive affirmation is key.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Positive affirmation is key.

How long does it take to break a habit?

"How long it takes to create a new habit really depends on the individual," Hansen said. "It really depends on how strong your goal is to create the new habit, and how much attention do you pay to the new regime.

"But to be honest, I've not really seen anyone succeed with a new habit in less time than three to four weeks.

"The main thing is to recognise we can achieve more of our potential as humans or managers or parents or partners if we become more mindful of how we respond to things and not always respond in an automatic way.

"Instead of just trying to get rid of bad habits, it's important to recognise we can create many new helpful habits along the way.

'It's an important part of getting the best out of our lives and the best out of ourselves."

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