Fiona Holland, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, explains why giving something up for Lent is hard and offers her top tips to help you achieve it.
Lent is a time when many people consider giving up something they know is not healthy for them to coincide with the period of 40 days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Often this is chocolate or alcohol or some other ‘treat’.
Giving up something that is a habit can be far more difficult than adding a new behaviour, such as eating vegetables or increasing physical activity.
We learn habits over time by repetition until the behaviour in question becomes automatic. This happens when our thinking processes become very efficient and the behaviour then needs very little conscious awareness. For example, I make a cup of tea and always put a teaspoon of sugar in it.
When we make decisions we have two modes of thinking – one is intuitive (system 1), the other is rational and deliberative (system 2).
System 1 is fast and automatic (e.g. ‘going with your gut’) and draws on past experiences and a set of simple rules we’ve created.
System 2 demands more cognitive effort (‘brain-work’) and is slower but helps us weigh up more complex or new situations.
One of the challenges with changing behaviour is that often we are working with long established habits and to make changes to these we have to do effortful mental work rather than continue in our automatic, well grooved-in ways. Most of the time, we are not choosing in a conscious way (system 2), our daily behaviour is governed by the intuitive system (system 1) and we act upon habit, gut instinct and simple rules of thumb.
Habits follow a pattern that always consists of a cue or trigger, a behaviour and a reward. To begin to think about changing habits, we need to understand our triggers for the less desirable behaviours which we want to reduce or stop, for example, for Lent.
Here’s three helpful activities to help you stick to your Lent goals:
Pros and cons of keeping or kicking a
Pros and cons of keeping or kicking a habit
Think of one habit you wish to reduce or stop. Write down the pros and cons of changing this behaviour and also the pros and cons of not changing this behaviour. This helps to increase your understanding of your behaviour and your level of commitment.
What are the cues or triggers that set this habit into motion?
If you eat chocolate when you are tired or stressed, the cue might be walking past the vending machine each afternoon, seeing someone else eat a chocolate bar, or feeling emotional.
If you always reach for alcohol on a Friday after work your cue might be that it is Friday, 6:30pm, and you’ve walked into the kitchen.
Think about the behaviour you are hoping to stop and identify the triggers that lead to it.
- We also need to recognise the reward we get from the habit. For example, does chocolate make us feel like we’ve been treated? Does having alcohol make us feel more relaxed?
- Note down how you feel after your habitual behaviour. Relaxed? Guilty? Satisfied?
- Now think about what you could substitute behaviour-wise that would enable you to feel like you get a similar reward. What else could make you feel like you’ve been treated other than eating chocolate?
- Keep notes. Treating your habit loop like a mini experiment can be informative. Habits do die hard.
- Try not to judge yourself too critically; being compassionate to ourselves is a vital part of successful lifestyle change.