What is a habit? A habit is formed by either a repetitive routine you do daily or by doing something that triggers the reward centers of the brain (think, overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, compulsive use gambling or use of social media.
Why being bad feels so good: Your brain is wired to pay attention to things that feel pleas- ing, and pleasing doesn’t always mean good or good for you. Bad habits can be a challenge to break because they trigger the “reward centers” in your brain.
How habits work: Habit parts consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding “habit loops” can help you to see how patterned behaviors work.
Awareness is the key. Spend the next week by building awareness. In Part 2 of Healthy Habits, you’ll learn the rest of the strategies it takes to create healthy and break unhealthy habits, but the first step is to understand the cues, routines, and rewards behind existing patterns.
How many times have you decided to eat healthier and exercise more (or some), only to slip back into old patterns? Why is it so hard make a good habit stick and so easy to slip back into a bad one? You can see the goal you’d like to reach, you may even have a perfectly good plan for a better diet or exercise program, but it isn’t that simple. Making new routines stick takes more than making a one-time decision—you need to get your mind in the mix to make it last. For most of us, patterns of overeating,
unhealthy eating and drinking, and sedentary behaviors have been going on for a long time. Plus, the human body was biologically designed to store energy and to exercise only out of necessity. That was great in the good ole hunter-gatherer days of yore, but today—not so much. Food is available 24/7 and sitting, at work, in the car, and at home consumes most of our days. Today, creating and maintaining good habits—exercising, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, letting go of stress—means employing physical and mindful strategies.
What is a habit?
It helps to start with the basics. A habit can be any activity done frequently. Everyday habits include things like brushing your teeth, emptying the dishwasher, or driving to work. Scientists call a habit, a semi- or fully-automated practice that occurs regularly in your life. Neuroscientists are now able to peek inside our brains to see what happens when doing a new activity compared to an already estab- lished behavior. It turns out that the brain compiles repetitive routines in a special section of the brain, so they take less effort than learning a new activity. The purpose of going on autopilot to perform these routines is to provide more brain space for other things.
Can you remember when you learned to ride a bike, brush your teeth, or to tie your shoes? At first, these new activities took time and energy to learn how to do them, but when’s the last time you really thought about lacing up your shoes? You don’t have to think about tying your shoes because the activi- ty has become automated into a “habit loop,” which is your brain’s way of chunking many small behav- iors into one—a habit. Think about it. Something like “brushing your teeth” contains many smaller behaviors that include rinsing your toothbrush, opening the toothpaste, putting the toothpaste on the brush, brushing your teeth (back, front, inside, outside, etc.), rinsing the brush, and so on. It turns out that these steps are grouped and stored in your memory, and certain neurons responsible for habits are responsible for turning them on and off.
Think about how you drive to work every day—often you can get from your house to work, or back home, on autopilot. You are on your “drive to work” habit loop. You can get through a lot of your morning routine without being fully conscious of what you are doing. Think about this morning. Did you have to ponder over the steps you’d need to take to pour yourself a cup of coffee, take a shower, or brush your teeth? Not a lot, right? That’s why it can be so hard to remember if you took your morning vitamins, locked the door on your way out, or closed the garage. You can thank your brain for the help and, sometimes, the hindrance (especially if you had to circle back for your meds or to check your locks).
The bad news? Like a well-rutted dirt road, bad habits are easy to follow and hard to change. Habits, good or bad, never really go away. That’s why, even if it’s been a long time since you’ve been on a bike, you can still get on one (maybe with a little wobbling) and pedal right on down the street. That old path might get dusty, but it’s still there. The good news is that understanding how habits work will help you to form strategies that break the bad and establish the good habits you want in your life.
Why being bad feels so good
Your brain is wired to pay attention to things that feel pleasing, and pleasing doesn’t always mean good or good for you. These habits are especially good at triggering your brain’s reward center, which trig- gers the neuron dopamine (the same neuron triggered by drugs like cocaine). This is what often leads to binge eating, drinking, gambling, obsessively checking your phone or social media, or watching an entire season on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon over one weekend.
Unfortunately, self-destructive habits can become even more permanent than healthy ones. Not only do they get on the same autopilot track as other habits they also have an addictive chemical boost behind them.
How Habits Work
All habits follow the same neurological patterns, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. Duhigg’s book discusses the scientific research behind habits, and from this, he shares how a well-practiced repetitive routine can be broken down and better understood. Habit parts consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward for every habit you have. You probably value your job, and so, your cue is to get to work on time so you will stay employed. The routine is the job, and the reward is the paycheck (and hopefully fulfillment from the work you do).
There are a few different ways that you can effectively replace a bad habit with a better one by using these three steps. The first step is to become aware of your automatic behaviors, so you can clearly understand the cue, routine, and reward. Then you can come up with a plan to create a new habit using these same three steps. Next, begin to create a new habit loop that will support healthy eating, exer- cise, and other self-care habits that will boost health and well-being. It might take a bit more effort to establish and maintain initially, but keep in mind, new habits can also tap into the same reward center that bad habits do—it might just take a little more time and effort to get started. That’s why activities such as talking with friends, breathing deeply, meditating, going for a run, taking a walk, and even eating healthy food, initially may take a bit more conscious effort, but ultimately make you feel good.
One final word of caution when it comes to bad habits: They can’t be entirely erased. Building a healthy habit is like creating a new path, not paving over an old one. The neural pathway for a bad habit always remains, but if you consistently practice healthy behaviors, the unhealthy ones will fade.
Step 1: Examine Existing Traps
Spend the next week by building awareness. In Part 2 of Healthy Habits, you’ll learn the rest of the strategies it takes to create healthy and break unhealthy habits, but the first step is to understand the cues, routines, and rewards behind existing patterns. The cues that trigger an unhealthy food choice, for example. There is also a cue, routine, and reward that lands you on the sofa with a glass of wine instead of following through with a planned evening workout. Spend this next week on noting these in a journal or notebook. Without this information, you can’t create a plan for healthy behaviors that will stick. Investigate. Do you automatically reach for the donuts or candy at your workplace? Do you dump sugar into your coffee or salt your food before you even taste it? Don’t get mad at yourself; just write it down. You are conducting an investigation.
While all habits are made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward, but it’s often helpful to work on identify- ing them out of order. Consider:
- The reward: If you find a donut in your hand at work (the reward), reflect on what happened just before (that will be the routine).
- The routine: You got up from your desk and walked to the mailroom. Routines are the behaviors you want to change.
- The cue: These can be subtle, and you’ll have to dig a little deeper. With the donut, you might ask yourself if it was hunger, boredom, aversion to the task at hand (a stack of paperwork), or fatigue.
Write these down in any order they occur to you to help you see the daily patterns you’d like to change. Next week we’ll discuss how to create new cues, routines, and rewards for healthier behavior and results.