So two weeks ago we talked about how modern life is killing us. This week, we need to talk about what we do to fix it.
Now, I could tell you
- Stop drinking sugar sweetened beverages
- Get activity in by setting an alarm to go off every hour and walk when it goes off
- Become mindful of your eating
- Educate yourself on portion sizes
But these suggestions don’t get to the crux of the problem.
Then what’s the real problem?
(Note: If you’re looking for sources, the majority of information cited here comes from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. I highly suggest reading this book for an in-depth look at how and why we form habits.)
What’s A Habit?
What do you think of when I say the word “habit?” A bad habit like smoking or nail-biting? Or a good habit like flossing or staying hydrated?
Now, what’s the common link here? They are all actions that become more or less unconscious due to repetition. You can think of habits as the things we do when we’re on “autopilot.”
Our brains like to form habits. Mostly because our brains are lazy. By putting certain actions on automatic, our brains reduce something called cognitive load. This frees up brainpower to go to other tasks.
Unfortunately, as you can tell from the habits I listed above, this kind of reduction can be helpful or harmful. Our brains can’t distinguish between helpful habits and harmful habits. But the mechanism of forming these habits is the same—which we can use to our advantage.
How We Form Habits
Welcome to the habit formation loop. The above image shows my version of the habit formation loop presented in The Power of Habit.
Psychology researchers have determined that the execution of a habit falls into three distinct phases. First, you have the reminder (also called the cue) that sets up the habit. This is followed by the routine, which is the habit itself. Finally, the reward wraps up the entire process.
Let’s consider taking off from a green traffic light to break this down. If you were stopped at a traffic light, the reminder (or cue) would be the traffic light turning from red to green. The routine would be lifting your foot from the brake and pushing down the gas pedal to move forward. The reward would be getting closer to your destination (or avoiding angry honks from the drivers behind you.)
So now that we know how to form habits, let’s talk about creating new good habits.
Creating New Habits
Look at the habit loop above for a minute. Which part (or parts) of that loop do you think are the most important in forming new habits?
Surprisingly, it’s the reminder and the reward that are most important. In forming new habits, we already know what the routine is because we already know the habit we’re working towards.
A reminder can be any number of things—a certain time of day, a certain place or even a to-do item or sticky note. But, it’s important to find something that will be consistent and obvious to you. And don’t be afraid to experiment with different reminders. If one type of reminder doesn’t seem to work, try another one until the routine begins to stick.
Whenever I talk to my patients about food logging as a habit, I give the option of digital notifications if they’re using an app to log. However, if a patient is being pinged with hundreds of notifications a day, those digital notifications tend to get lost. In those cases, I suggest patients switch to using a physical reminder like a sticky note in the kitchen. This usually helps immensely.
Rewards, on the other hand, are a bit more specific than reminders. For a reward to help cement a habit, it must fulfill three criteria:
- It can be performed consistently after the routine
- It occurs as close to the end of the routine as possible
- It does not interfere with current goals
On the first point, the consistency simply helps with the sticking power of the habit in general. After all, habits become habits through repetition. The same consistency is required with the reward.
The second point is part of a similar vein, but is important to help your brain link the routine to the reward as closely as possible. The greater amount of time between the end of the routine and the reward, the less of a link your brain will make between the two events. I would argue that this link is the foundation of new habit formation. Essentially, the link forces a connection between the routine and the dopamine from the reward. In your brain, this translates as: “Oh hey, I got a hit of dopamine when I did this routine. I need to remember to do that routine again when I see that reminder!”
Unfortunately, the last point is one of the most overlooked aspects of choosing a good reward. You must find a reward that does not conflict with your goals. What do I mean here? Well, when I talk about this with patients, I joke that an example of a conflicting reward would be getting doughnuts as a reward for completing your exercise routine. So when you’re choosing a reward, double check that it helps you move towards your goals (or at least remains neutral) rather than hindering you.
Now that we know how forming new habits works, let’s look into the subject people are typically most curious about with habits:
Breaking “Bad” Habits
Let me give you the bad news first: most behavior and habit researchers argue that “bad” habits can’t be “broken.”
The good news, however, is that they can be replaced.
With that in mind, take a look back at the habit loop. Which aspects do you think are the most important?
If you guessed the reminder and the routine, you guessed right! This isn’t to say that the reward doesn’t come into play at all, but it’s more of a guide for picking a new routine.
When dealing with “bad” habits, the reminder aspect really comes down to determining your reminder (or cue or trigger) and avoiding that. Remember the old phrase “out of sight, out of mind?” That’s what we’re trying to do here. To do this, think about a “bad” habit you want to get rid of. Try to think of what typically leads you into doing that habit. Are you stressed? Tired? Near a certain place? Really dig into any potential causes. Once you’ve done that, do your best to avoid the physical triggers. We’ll be working with the emotional ones with the routine aspect.
As I said above, most researchers think that we can’t break bad habits, we can only replace them. So the goal of “breaking” a bad habit is actually to find a new routine that gives us a similar reward to the old habit. This is where you use the reward to guide you. With your “bad” habit, what rewards do you get out of it? Do you feel less stressed? More energetic? The rewards for most “bad” habits fall into one of these two categories.
From there, start brainstorming other “good” activities that would provide you with the same benefits. This will address the emotional triggers linked to your “bad” habit. Again, like with finding rewards for a new habit, we want an activity that doesn’t conflict with our current goals. It may take a bit of time and experimentation to settle on a “replacement” habit, but you will eventually hit on one that works for you. When you do, stick to that habit and you’ll eventually find that the “bad” habit fades away.
Remember, habits are important because they keep you from relying on willpower. Willpower can be depleted, so it’s a bit like Atlas holding up the world. Habits, on the other hand, are like Atlas building a stand and placing the world on it. Sure, it takes some up front work to get things started. But, in the long run, it’s much easier to do.
Your homework for the next two weeks is to find a new habit you want to build or an old habit you want to replace and implement the steps we outlined above. See you in two weeks and class dismissed!