Many people find it incredibly testing when it comes to changing bad habits. I mean, we know some things we do from time to time are wrong, but we just cannot seem to stop. We may sneak in a few unhealthy snacks in the middle of a diet, we may go back to smoking after a month free of cigarettes, we sometimes listen to music when we know it’s not permissible, and we even may watch things we are not supposed to. So how do we make changes that are lasting?
Gaining the motivation and strength to fight undesired habits is not easy. But, here is a simple and effective framework to help you change negative habits into good ones.
1. ‘Change’ not erase the habit
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s true. The idea is not to eradicate an undesirable habit from your mindset completely, but instead to break it down and form a new habit instead. It’s all related to neuroplasticity in the brain. Neuroplasticity is simply your brain‘s ability to grow and restructure its neural pathways. Think of sea water flowing through sand. In the beginning, there is no route, so the water creates one for it to flow through to the sea. Over time, as more water keeps flowing through, the pathway becomes steadier and more defined. Sometimes it’ll make new pathways on top of the old pathways if there is too much water, and other times, some pathways won’t be used at all. That’s a basic way of picturing Neuroplasticity.
In layman’s terms, it’s applicable to us in a whole host of instances. For example, for those with bad eating habits, a healthy snack should always be available so you don’t fall into eating junk whenever you’re hungry. Stock up on some Snack-A-jacks, almond, nuts, and fruits. Put your internet to good use, get creative with alternative snacking and build a pleasure pathway to welcome this alternative. Let’s rewire our pathways!
2. Identify and cut out triggers
The first step to change bad habits for life is to identify the triggers that may cause you to fall into a constant ongoing cycle, which then lead you into a never-ending loop of bad habits. It is about finding the cues that trigger the neurons in our brain to react in a certain way.
We react in a conditioned way because of the chemicals, usually dopamine, that are released into the brain when doing the act, which makes sure you come back for more. When the chemicals are released, our brains register a pleasureable feeling, so the body will react the same way for the same fix the next time. It’s important we know this so we can empower ourselves to react in the right manner which will allow us to break the cycle.
For example, someone who struggles to eat cleanly might face problems, as they have a lot of junk food around their house. The solution? Get rid of the junk by donating it to a homeless shelter. This not only protects your body from putting on pounds but can also act as a stimulant to trigger happy endorphin derived due to the pleasure of making another human happy.
Removing triggers from your life is key, and makes it substantially easier not to fall into the habit again. For the same reason, counsellors tell alcoholics to avoid keeping alcohol in the house, simply because if the chance is there, the likelihood of you falling back into the habit and engaging it, is far higher. I remember reading about a researcher who made the butt of a cigarette taste like vomit for smokers in his study, he found it was a much more effective tool in making smokers refrain from cigarettes as it created a bad mental association for the smokers. Every time they felt like smoking, they’d remember the smell which would cause them to hesitate for another smoke.
Different habits will have different triggers, learning to identify what your triggers are, can be life–altering, by sourcing the triggers the symptoms can be cured.
3. Have a planned substitute
So you’ve successfully succeeded in identifying the triggers that cause reinforcement of your habit, well done, that’s a huge step. The next step is to replace the habit with something else. Every time we remove a bad habit, we leave an empty space in the brain. Remember, the habit served a purpose (dealing with stress, making you feel good, relieving boredom etc.) Removing it creates a void which needs to be filled with something else. I say this because leaving an empty space can and has led people to fall back into their old ways, just look at cigarette smokers who try to go cold turkey, the stats say the success rates of using this method are far lower.
For those who may like returning to music as comfort, we can try to alter this habit by trying to replace the music with Qur’an instead, interesting and enjoyable Islamic lectures or alternatively sounds of nature if you need something to calm you down. Another example is of those who fall into pornography, aim to find a rewarding alternative, with something that keeps your mind and body busy, with activities like exercise. Creative work will do too, as it is mentally stimulating like writing and painting. Therefore, the goal should be to change the habit instead of erasing the habit. Find something that will help you shift your focus away from the habit itself. For smokers who might be craving nicotine, substitute with breathing exercises. Every time the need to smoke arises, continually do your breathing excises until the craving is manageable.
On this note, there’s one particular method I find useful when it came to laziness in salah. At times we lose focus and sincerity. In the worse cases, you might forget a prayer or group of prayers entirely. To combat this, every time you hear the adhaan, before giving yourself time to think, work on your reaction time, action versus thinking. Before you have time to think about all the reasons you have to not pray in that moment, get up and pray immediately!
4. Create achievable goals
Changing the way you do things requires time, effort and a lot of willpower, so it’s wise to make the change slowly rather than in one go.
Everyone knows of someone who brags about how they are able to break and form habits super quickly with no issues. My advice here is to take it with a grain of salt. Mash’Allah, that’s great if they actually succeed but for most of us, it’s not going to happen right away, being realistic actually causes you to feel more positive towards your goal as it won‘t appear so unobtainable. We’re better off building a strong foundation and slowly but surely eradicating all the little difficulties. Let’s take the example of alcohol in Islam, it was not forbidden right away, rather it was gradually prohibited in stages, illustrating the purpose of having small goals rather than going all in right away.
For those wishing to read the Qur’an more, you can simply start with 3 verses a day. Have a Qur’an app on your phone so you can do it from anywhere at any time. Then attempt to read a whole surah, then try 2 surahs and so on and so forth. Eventually, you’ll be able to do a chapter comfortably insha’Allah. It’s the same for any habit; your habits have one thing in common they are all hard to give up, and comfortable or enjoyable in some way but bad for you in others.
Write down a list of bad habits today- and strategically plan how to battle them bit by bit. For example:
Exercise- Start with 2 times a week and increase slowly
Smoking- Choose a figure you can cut down to and aim to decrease gradually
Waking up and sleeping- You can wake up earlier by 30 mins, then go to sleep 30 minutes earlier, continue this until you get used to the routine of waking up early.
5. Myth Busting: It may not take 3 weeks!
Initially, scientists suggested that our brains were wired completely differently when we were kids and formulating solid foundations that would not evolve, making change difficult. As our understanding of the human psyche has developed considerably, scientists have suggested that our brains can change and adapt well into our adolescence.
One famous figure was Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon who came out with the theory that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit. He developed this through his experience with patients, where he found that it took 21 days for them to notice changes after surgery. Ever since then, many people believe it will take 21 days for a habit to develop. But that’s not necessarily entirely correct. A study conducted by Dr Phillippa Lally, UCL, found individuals attempting to form new habits, often varied between 18 to 254 days, with the average being 66 days. These results were achieved by a self-report method where participants were asked to rate their new actions, on the basis of whether or not if they felt like second nature to the participant. Meaning, the new habit became like second nature to them. They concluded 66 days was the average fit for their model. Every individual, however, is different, so for some people change might be relatively quick, whilst others might have to wait a long time for a habit to form. The key was repeating the same behaviour. In terms of breaking a habit, there’s no consensus on how long it takes to remove an unwanted habit. As stated in my first point, many will agree you can’t break a habit outright, instead, you can overpower it by giving a healthy alternative and developing a stronger, more productive habit, which is what we’re aiming to do. It might be slow for some but we want to make changes that last for the rest of our lives.
6. Don’t panic if you slip up
Inevitably, once in a while we might fall back into our old habits. We won’t even notice it until it’s too late at times. What is important is what we do after we realize our mistake. For many people, they tend to think that breaking a good streak once is the end of the process, ‘Oh no I’ve completely messed it up, I’m going to have to start again from scratch,’ is the wrong way to approach a mishap. You have to be able to forgive yourself when you make a mistake, we are only humans.
Like the study shown above, Dr Phillippa Lally also stated that it’s about being consistent when forming new habits. Missing an opportunity to reinforce a habit does not significantly affect the process, rather inconsistency is the culprit for failure for us. So remember, if you fall off, don’t worry. Get back on the horse, shrug off the mistake, and move forward. If you are struggling to work your way out and keep falling into habits that go against Islamic principle, don’t forget to ask for forgiveness and strength to push forward!
Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: O Allah, You are forgiving and generous. You love to forgive. [Sunan At-Tirmidhi]
Ultimately, whilst these are guidelines to follow for forming and changing habits, there is no one size that fits all. Everyone is unique; we learn differently and we adapt differently, so following these simple achievable goals may guarantee some of us a successful transition, this, however, may not be true for all of us. Each of us has unique triggers, insecurities and goals, it is up to us to learn them and act accordingly. Aim to go with the trial and error method. We should try things one way, then adapt the plan to improve the success rate. Sometimes, we have to take a step back and try an alternative strategy completely but you won’t know that until you try. My suggestion is to begin and start improving our habits slowly, the only obstacle here is ourselves.
So my brothers and sisters, just say Bismillah and start your journey…
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