Being ADEPT at Changing Habit

Spring 2015, Living Well Magazine

By Assoc Professor Craig Hassed MBBS, FRACGP
Monash University Department of General Practice
Co-author with Kerry Phelps of General Practice: the integrative approach

Being a GP who teaches, I’m always looking for ways to help get a healthy message across whether it’s to professional colleagues or patients. Of course, the teacher is in the same boat as the student, and the doctor in the same boat as the patient as far as the struggle with making healthy lifestyle changes.

We can overdo the acronyms, but they can be very useful. ADEPT is a useful way for thinking about changing habits and I’ll illustrate how.

You might like to do this little exercise or experiment now as you read this article.

Firstly, I invite you to cross your arms. It’s pretty easy, and you will be able to do it without thinking too much about it. Whether or not you realise it, you always cross them the same way – the way your brain has been wired to do it. When you do something repeatedly the same way the brain wires itself to keep doing it and it becomes increasingly difficult to do it in a different way. It’s like a car that has been driven over the same piece of soft ground many times – it gets harder and harder to turn the car’s wheels out of the ruts. Now I invite you to notice what happens when you try to cross your arms the opposite way. It’s a bit more of a struggle, in fact many people can’t keep themselves from doing it the habitual way. If you pay attention to what it feels like to cross arms in the non-habitual way you will notice a few things are involved.

This pretty much sums up anything we learn, any new ability we develop, or any behaviour we change in life. Now, the way we cross arms may not matter too much, but there are a lot of things that do matter from a health perspective like the food we eat, the way we think, how we communicate, how we manage emotions, whether or not we exercise, or whether we give up smoking. The same thing applies – Attention, Decision, Effort, Perseverance and Tolerance.

If we are consistent then new circuits are wired into the brain and old ones are pruned back. That’s neuroplasticity. Over time, what was hard to do becomes easy, and what was easy to do becomes easy to avoid. 

The thing is that it all starts with attention – aka mindfulness. If we are distracted and living on automatic pilot then we will do things in the habitual way whether it is good for us or not. There is no choice without awareness.

The next thing is noticing that resistance comes with the territory. I find that if people understand that resistance to change is a natural thing, and rather than being bad it is a sign that good changes are happening, then they will be more likely to feel encouraged rather than dispirited when resistance arises. The brain is being stimulated to make new circuits and that is what it feels like. If we are patient, change is not possible, it is inevitable.

So, good luck with being ADEPT at making the changes you want to make in your life.

Assoc Professor Craig Hassed
MBBS, FRACGP

Assoc Professor Craig Hassed is a General Practitioner at the Monash University Department of General Practice. He has been instrumental in introducing a variety of innovations into medical education and practice with an emphasis on the application of holistic, integrative and mind-body medicine in medical practice. Craig runs his Essence of Health and Mindfulness Meditation Training for Health Practitioners retreat programs at the Yarra Valley Living Centre, and also presents during our Life and Living cancer programs. He has also published 7 books including Know Thyself, The Essence of Health, General Practice: the integrative approach, Mindfulness for Life, and Mindful Learning.