Harnessing Our Habits
You may not think of it this way, but almost everything we do is a habit. From the order we put our clothes on in the morning, to the toothpaste we use, to our evening routines, all of these are habits. Our brains are somewhat lazy. Once we figure something out, it puts that task on autopilot, so we don’t have to use energy to figure out again. How complicated life would be if we had to figure out how to get home each day? Or we had to relearn how to tie our shoes? Or which toothpaste to buy every single time we went shopping?
How Habits Form
In many ways, this is all about making our life simpler. We don’t have to consider every decision from scratch. Consider the effort and stress of driving in a city you’ve never been in versus taking your tried and true route home from work. Having these habits and routines help us navigate the world without having to concentrate on every little thing in front of us.
However, this also is true for bad habits. Have you ever had a bad habit that you wanted to stop, but couldn’t? It sometimes feels like you aren’t even in control. You think, “I am not going to eat those doughnuts Karen brought in to work.” and next thing you know, you are dunking one in your coffee and thanking Karen. And you decide to spend less time on social media, but before long, you are clicking that icon on your phone again, almost without realizing it. Well, you aren’t alone; it happens to everyone.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can use these automatic processes to create good habits. And, if you know how the process works, you can disrupt and change bad ones. In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg, the author, writes about habit loops. A habit loop goes like this: first, there is a trigger, say seeing the Instagram logo on your phone, that then sparks an action, you click it. Finally, there is a reward, the small happiness boost of chemicals our brain gives us when it sees social media. So, the process is a trigger, action, reward. Now, how can you use that in your own life?
Breaking the Cycle of a Bad Habit
The first step is to recognize the habit. Let’s take an example of eating something sweet before bedtime. To break a habit, you first look at what happens immediately preceding it. Let’s say our action is getting the bowl of ice cream, the reward is the sugar and fat, but what is the trigger? What is it that sends you to the kitchen? For example, it could be the time of night; every night at 10:00, you get the urge. It could be that you aren’t eating enough at dinner, and your blood sugar starts to drop in the evenings, and that is the trigger. Or, maybe your partner gets a glass of wine at that time, and this is your way of joining them in an evening indulgence.
It might take some experimentation. For example, if you think it is a time of night, what happens if you are out at night past that time? Do you still hit the kitchen after? If it’s your blood sugar, what happens if you eat some fruit instead or eat a little more at dinner? Watch what happens, and this will help you change the habit.
As you know, habits are challenging to break. But they are much easier to modify. Once you know the trigger, you can either change the trigger or alter the action. Perhaps you go to bed earlier or try brushing your teeth when you would typically snack. Maybe you switch out the ice cream for a protein shake. The important part is to see the whole process and find ways to modify the loop.
Using this Process to Make a Good Habit
Let’s say that you want to start a habit, you can use this process in the same way. For example, if you desire to go to the gym more, you can pick a time of day to be a trigger. Every day after work, change your commute, so you drive by the gym. The sight of the gym becomes the trigger to stop and hit the treadmill. Or perhaps you pack your gym bag the night before, so when you see it ready to go, it spurs you to get out the door.
This is why stocking your refrigerator with fresh foods like fruits and vegetables is one of the critical steps in healthy nutrition – along with throwing out the foods you don’t want to eat! Your brain acts based on what it sees, so changing your visual trigger to healthful foods can help you make that switch. In fact, researchers have found that one of the simplest ways to lose weight is to move unhealthy foods off the countertop and tuck them away in cupboards.
All of your habits, good and bad, start with a trigger, which causes an action, which gives us some kind of reward. Once you see the pattern, you can harness it to help you achieve your goals.