How to break bad habits

Where to start? First, identify the habits you want to change.

Tweaking the system that guides you through the day isn’t easy, but the effort is worth it.

By Keith Barrett

Each day, up to 40 per cent of what we do is determined by our habits. Learning how to make or break them, and thereby altering the way we work and live, can have a dramatic impact on our productivity and our lives.

Where to start? First of all, it’s about identifying the habits we want to change.

“It all comes back to our personal productivity and effectiveness,” says Bri Williams CPA of People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural finance to everyday business issues.

“Our brain is like a battery. At the end of the week, when our battery is low, we are more likely to make bad choices, like beer and pizza on a Friday.

“If you can lock down behaviours then these routines can become good habits, across everything from nutrition to mindfulness, movement and financial management.”

The three mistakes

When changing our behaviour we need to avoid three fundamental mistakes.

“The first is relying on willpower,” Williams says.

“Everyone just says ‘I’ll be fine’ but willpower alone isn’t enough. The second is thinking that we’re rational all the time. It’s just not true, and there’s always some gap between what  we intend to do and what we actually end up doing.

“There are two versions of me: the ‘now’ me and the ‘future’ me. We need to stop ourselves doing things just for the ‘now’ me and start doing things for the ‘future’ me.”

To highlight how little rationale can be shown in a particular set of circumstances, Williams points to a study conducted in 2006 that involved people serving themselves and consuming ice cream. Both groups had a bowl and a spoon, with one group having a smaller version of each. The group with the larger items served – and consumed – an average of 31 per cent more than those with the smaller spoon and bowl. To highlight the lack of rationale: the 85 participants of the study were all nutritionists.

The third mistake she illustrates is failing to understand just how much the environment can affect and change behaviour.

This final point is borne out by statistics from the extensive Framingham Heart Study, a research project that has been in operation since 1948 and has been working with Boston University since 1971.

It is in its study of the third generation of the more than 5000 inhabitants of the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. It found that there was a 57 per cent chance that a child would develop obesity if they were friends with other obese children.

Alter your environment

What Williams emphasises is that the successful fundamental altering of your developed habitual actions is through awareness and concentrated effort. It is only through effort that new habits can be acquired.

“If you change your environment, your habits will change,” she says.

“When it comes to making a habit, you want to try and make it easy. When it comes to breaking it, make it hard. It can be done. For example, invest in a standing desk if you’re not moving around enough.”

Think beyond your own systems and process too.

“If you’re in a client-facing role, then you’re going to come across clients that have bad habits. An accountant may see bad money habits with their clients and an advisor may find more bad habits across a business.

“Being able to help someone see these habits, and help them make change, will be an invaluable skill. As a financial professional in today's world, you’re going to need to be able to help.”