Change is inevitable. Why not grab it by the horns and use positive habit formation to make it work for YOU?
Nurses and midwives inevitably encounter life changes and transitions during their working life. Starting a family, changing job, retiring or confronting other unexpected difficulties such as illness, relationships or financial challenges — any of these can leave you feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
You can’t always know when life will throw you a curve ball, but proactively preparing for life’s challenges with deliberate intentions and healthy habits may assist you to weather the storm. Forming healthy habits that benefit your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing can help you to feel more in control of your life and your choices during a time of change. Instead of feeling stuck and overwhelmed, falling back on ‘automated’ healthy habits that you have developed means you can engage in self-care that assists you to feel more resilient, strong, and healthy.
Let’s take a closer look at habits…
A habit is a behaviour that is usually repeated unconsciously in response to an environmental cue. For example, leaving your running shoes at the front door is a ‘cue’ for you to go for a jog or a walk. Having chocolate biscuits on the bench is a cue for you to eat them! Removing a trigger for an unhealthy behaviour and replacing it with a healthy one is an effective way to change a habit.
Habits are important because they free you from having to make constant decisions about routine daily activities like brushing teeth, driving, and getting dressed.
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than before: Mastering the habits of our everyday lives tells us that habits are "the invisible architecture of everyday life”. During times of stress, or when it is challenging to sustain the attention needed to persevere with newly adopted behaviours, people usually revert to an old learned behaviour, demonstrating an attention bias for ingrained habits that have become the ‘default mode’.
Rubin explains that this is natural human behaviour, and not something to judge yourself for — there’s an old saying in neuroscience, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.
Knowledge is power, understanding this can be the first step towards positive habit change. Rubin’s research shows that habits develop easily, tend to be self-stabilizing, and can override good intentions. This is especially the case when you feel stressed or fatigued.
- Rather than trying to ‘get rid’ of unhealthy habits, research has found that replacing them with healthy ones is key.
- Repetition of a behaviour leads to new habit formation, and especially at the beginning of trying to make a change.
- Take small steps, don’t try to change too much at once, and make the change as simple and enjoyable as possible. For example: Wendy wants to stop watching TV and instead get fit. She starts by putting the skipping rope at the front door as the ‘cue’ to start skipping. She also makes a specific plan to jump for 3 minutes 2 days a week when she gets home from work, and gradually increases the time spent skipping from there.
- Doing an activity at the same time each day also helps to form new habits more easily. For example, eating a piece of fruit with breakfast or going for a walk every day before work helps build the action into your routine.
If a healthy behaviour can be made habitual, it is less likely to be disrupted when motivation diminishes, which is often the case during times of stress or big life changes.
“We have found that when people are distracted or feeling particularly tired or overwhelmed, they fall back on good habits as well as bad habits” — Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology and Business at USC and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of making positive changes that stick.
Big life changes can also be a golden opportunity for us to create new positive habits. A divorce, an illness, or a move to a new job can be good motivation for us to really learn to take better care of ourselves and improve our diet, fitness, or spend more time with ourselves in healthier ways.
Research has shown that changing habits takes approximately 2–3 months. This might seem like a long time, but in the grand scheme of life, spending this period developing good habits can lead to lifelong positive changes.
Remember, you can contact Nurse & Midwife Support if you need support with this or any other issue. Just email us or call 1800 667 877
- Changing habits for the long haul, Eric Houston
- How we form habits, change existing ones, Society for Personality and Social Psychology
- How the brain makes, and breaks, a habit, Inga Kiderra, University of California-San Diego
- Towards parsimony in habit measurement: Testing the convergent and predictive validity of an automaticity subscale of the Self-Report Habit Index, International Journal of Behavioural and Physical Activity
- Benefits of habit‐based informational interventions: a randomised controlled trial of fruit and vegetable consumption, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
- Healthy habits die hard: In times of stress, people lean on established routines -- even healthy ones, University of Southern California
- Breaking Habits With Implementation Intentions: A Test of Underlying Processes, Society for Personality and Social Psychology
- Good habits, Bad habits: A conversation with Wendy Wood