You’ve given up smoking – but suddenly a bad day at work comes along, and suddenly a pack of 20 Marlboro Lights has a certain appeal. You’ve promised yourself that you’re saving for a holiday – but then you blow £50 on clothes as it’s ‘nearly payday, and I need a pick me up’. You’re on a health kick, but that supermarket lunch meal deal, complete with a chocolate bar, suddenly starts to look like the better choice.

What’s going on? Why is the human brain so strange – and why do we find it so hard to say ‘no’ to things which we know are ultimately no good for us?

Pete Cohen has a great deal of experience when it comes to ‘damaging’ behaviours, and why we struggle so much to stick to ‘good’ resolutions. He’s a highly-regarded life coach with vast experience, who knows how to push his clients to achieve peak performance and overcome adversity. He’s no stranger to big names, having worked with Sally Gunnell, Ellen MacArthur and Ronnie O’Sullivan.

He was also the resident life coach and weight loss guru on ITV’s GMTV, and is the author of 14 bestselling personal development books including Life DIY, Habit Busting and Sort Your Life Out.

Smoking

Why do most people find it so hard to break free from bad habits or say ‘no’?

The reason most people find it hard is because that our brains don’t understand the difference between good and bad habits. Our brains automatically go to do something that we’ve always done, whether that’s good or bad, because that’s what it’s used to doing.

Do you think we’re ‘conditioned’ to give in by advertising and the media? It could be seen as ‘socially acceptable’ to give up on the diet, or the gym – after all, ‘You’re only human’.

Absolutely! Society today doesn’t embrace success – in fact, it embraces mediocrity. We’re constantly surrounded by opposing messages. It’s very easy to give up on something as you can always find a different answer which suits your mindset, whether that’s via the internet or through social media. There’s always someone out there who can bolster your opinion, so you can feel better about yourself.

Are two parts of the brain at war when we face a choice?

When we are faced with a choice, our brain is definitely at war, because there is a part of our brains ingrained in habit. This part doesn’t want to stop being comfortable.

When you want to make a change, the best thing to do it to break it down. Just try changing a little bit every day, and don’t try to make massive changes all at once, otherwise your brain will try to fight you!

Cake

Why does the part of our brain which seeks familiarity often come out on top when we have to make a choice?

We’re often victims of our habits. It’s much easier to go into safety mode, rather than challenge ourselves, and push ourselves towards a period of change and growth.

How long does it take us to make a decision? Is it instantaneous, or do our brains ‘mull over’ things for minutes or hours?

Everyone is unique, and the decision process for each individual is different. When you need to make a true decision, the best thing to do is to cut yourself off from everything around you and give yourself time to think about everything.

What causes most people to give in to temptation?

The biggest reason is plain and simple – it’s a lack of willpower. We only have a certain amount of willpower, so we need to try and push ourselves into increasing it – working it, just like a muscle. Just take a minute to think about how breaking your resolve will make you feel, and why you should stick to your decision to change your ways.

Why do we develop bad habits, and how can we break them?

There is a part of brain that always wants pleasure, and to our brain, this is always something good. The problem starts when society labels these behaviours ‘bad’, so we also start to feel bad whenever we do them.

The trick is realising that the grass is greener once you’ve broken the habit. Long-terms goals over short-term gratification is the way forward.

Cocktail in glass

Is a certain type of person more likely to be able to change their ways?

Definitely. Someone who has more willpower and is surrounding by a good network of like-minded people is more likely to change due to the positivity that they have in their life.

What can people do when they experience a stressful moment, and are tempted to go back on all the good choices they’ve made?

If you find yourself experiencing a stressful time, just take a moment and imagine how it would make you feel if you went back into your old ways. Really focus of that feeling and ask if it’s worth it in the long run.

Do you think that making small changes, and seeing the benefits, is a good way to instigate larger changes?

Absolutely. To make a larger change, you need to break a task down and recognise that the little things you are doing are part of the bigger picture.

How can people make their willpower stronger?

To increase your willpower, it’s really important to work on the fundamentals:

  • Regular exercise: By exercising regularly you are releasing the endorphins in your body that will make you feel happy and much better about yourself.

  • Get into a regular sleep pattern: Ensuring you get enough sleep is vital as our bodies need this time to recover and reboot from the previous day. When we don’t get enough sleep, we are less likely to function properly, and more likely to fall back into our habit old habits as it’s easier than assessing a situation and thinking clearly.

  • Being more positive: Having a positive outlook on a situation will help increase your willpower, as it will make you feel more determined to do something. By focusing on how you will feel afterwards and that sense of achievement, rather than focusing on the negatives, you are more likely to achieve something.

  • Take time for yourself: It’s really important to try and focus on yourself, where possible. Whether that’s meditation, reading or spending time with family, some alone time will allow you to really clear your mind of any negative energy.

If people ‘fall off the wagon’, what should they do to try and reduce the risk of it happening again?

Let’s face it - we are all human, and these things do happen from time to time. If you do find yourself ‘falling off the wagon’, the best thing to do is to dust yourself off and get back on it the next day. Otherwise you’ll find that one day can suddenly turn in to a week, which can then turn into month, and your setback will snowball and spiral out of control.

Try not to be too hard on yourself. It’s OK – we all mess up. Just learn from the experience, and try again!

Some points to remember when you’re faced with temptation:

  • It’s fine to feel conflicted. We’re all built to struggle with temptation and breaking habits is hard work

  • The brain seeks out familiar – so if you want to make changes, be prepared to feel a little discomfort as you rewire your brain

  • You can break old habits – just make small changes, one at a time

  • To boost your willpower, get lots of exercise, plenty of sleep, and make time for yourself

  • If you fall off the waggon, relax, and don’t berate yourself. Just make sure that you return to your ‘good’ habits as soon as possible

Image credits: Flickr, with thanks to Quinn Dombrowski, sherbonbon and rreihm