I know, I know, you are well aware of the not so good habits you have and the last thing you need is someone pointing them out to you, right? That’s cool. But hey, how about instead of me taking up your time preaching about bad habits, instead I teach you how to effectively create new habits? Sound good? Awesome, let’s get started.
What is a habit?
We all know that habits are daily behaviors that we don’t even think about. Brushing your teeth in the morning, getting dressed, putting your right shoe on first – these are all habits, things we just do without giving much thought to.
Science behind habit
I’m going to give you a little grace here and tell you that your inability to break a bad habit isn’t because you suck and have no will power. In fact, the ability, or inability to break a habit is really freaky scientific. Since I am not a scientist, I will break it down very simply for you. It all starts with the habit loop, consisting of a cue, behavior, and reward.
For example, you’ve had a rough day, drive your tired ass home and after getting stuck in rush hour traffic, you finally arrive at your beautiful house 60 minutes later with an aching back because you sat so freaking long. You pull in the driveway, enter your casa and hear the kids fighting and the dog barking. Stressed yet? I sure am and this is exactly why I am making myself a drink so I can calm my stressed- out self. Besides, I work hard and deserve this drink, right? The stress of work, traffic, fighting kids, and a barking dog have triggered you wanting a drink as soon as you get home. This my friends, is a habit cue. The drink is the behavior and the reward, or incentive, is the calmness you feel after the drink.
Old brain vs. new brain
Ok, so here is where we get all sciency. The new brain is associated with the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for thinking rationally and planning next steps. Think of this part of your brain as your grown-up adult part. The old brain is associated with the limbic system and basal ganglia. These regions are responsible for remembering whether a behavior created a positive or negative response. For example, when I was a teenager, I drank too much vodka and orange juice and got really sick. This was 26 years ago and to this day I cannot even smell vodka and orange juice, let alone drink it! This is my old brain doing its job and reminding me of a really, bad experience.
Here is another example. Let’s say you set a New Year’s resolution to get up every morning and strength train for 30 minutes. Your new brain is like “Yes! This will be so good for us. I am excited to start!” Day #1 comes and you struggle out of bed, get your gym clothes on, and drive yourself to the gym half asleep. You complete your workout and are already sore! Day #2 comes and your old brain says “Whoa! I am sore and tired and this is not fun. Let’s sleep in”. Old brain wins, and those intentions of working out in the morning never had a chance.
Breaking old habits and creating new ones
If you are still reading, then I am guessing you are serious about breaking a bad habit. Good for you! You mean business and I really like people like you who mean what they say.
Step #1- Identify the cue-behavior-reward loop
Remember earlier when I illustrated the stressed-out commuter who came home to a frantic house (yes, this is a personal example). The cue was traffic, an aching back, and a noisy, less than calm environment at home. The behavior was the after work drink, and the reward was feeling less stressed.
Step #2- Change the behavior, maintain the same cue
Instead of pouring the after work drink as soon as stressed-out commuter arrived home, what are some healthier habits? If you guessed immediately change clothes and go for a 20-minute walk, you are so smart!! Let’s face it, it’s not always possible to change our habit cues, but we can control the behavior/response. Here is another example. Let’s say you and your spouse have a habit of always eating dessert after dinner. You enjoy this time you have together and the rush of dopamine from the sugar feels pretty darn good. The cue in this case is finishing dinner and since you always have dessert, your old brain takes over and says “dessert time”! The cue will not go away, but instead of diving into dessert, you could go for a walk, take a hot bath, have massage time. All these options still bring a couple closer together without the extra calories.
Step #3- Identify goals and milestones
Now that we understand triggers and how to replace our behavior, it’s time to identify a goal and the milestones associated with the larger goal. Since I help a lot of women with weight loose, I will use the goal of losing 15 pounds as an example. It’s great to want to lose 15 pounds but unless we set some measurable milestones, you may get disappointed and abandon your new behaviors that will help you reach the overall goal. This is why setting milestones is so important!
Goal: Lose 15 pounds
1) walk for 30 minutes every day after work as soon as I get home
2) Instead of eating dessert every night, replace dessert with warm bath. Or, if you have kids and taking a relaxing bath is harder than it sounds, replace dessert with warm cup of chamomile tea.
- Lose 5 pounds month #1
- Lose 4 pounds month #2
- Lose 4 pounds month #3
- Lose 2 pounds month #4
Do you see how this is all coming together? We have our big goal and have defined the new habits that will get us there. Next, we set mini goals or milestones so that we stay motivated and feel accomplished during the journey.
Step #4- Identify motivational factors
The biggest failure area I see when someone is working to change a behavior, is their motivation. Many people are motivated out of fear. For example, their doctor said they had to lose weight or quit smoking or they risk dying. I know this is extreme, but you get the point. When I was battling an eating disorder, I was aware of the physical ramifications, yet I continued to binge and purge, severely restrict calories, and over exercise. Extrinsic motivation, or motivation from external sources isn’t lasting motivation. Motivation to change must come from within. This intrinsic motivation involves doing an activity because you enjoy it, not because you think you should. Do you feel a sense of accomplishment after a brisk walk? Of course, you do. This is intrinsic motivation. For the overweight mother who gets out of breath playing with her children, intrinsic motivation may be the ability to chase your kids without huffing and puffing.
Step #5- Create the cue
Next up is to create a reminder to trigger the new behavior. Let’s stay with the same stressed-out commuter, daily drinker example. How is she going to remember her new habit of a daily walk when she comes home to chaos? She can place her tennis shoes right next to the door so she sees them when she gets home. Or, she can set a reminder in her phone to go off at the same time she gets home from work. These are cues to remind her of her new behaviors so she doesn’t cave into the old one. Do NOT skip this step. It is critical to your success!
Step #6- Eliminate disruptors
A disruptor is something that slows down or prevents your desired outcome. I recently worked with a weight loss client who was struggling to drink the amount of water I had recommended. She had a water bottle but the process of drinking it was just slow. We decided that she needed a straw so that she took in more water each time she drank. Stressed-out commuter may not have a pair of walking shoes, and could say “Ah well, I don’t have the right kind of shoes, so I guess I can’t walk”. Ok, lame example, but you get the point. Identify your disruptors and how you will eliminate them.
Step #7 – The reward
You guys, this is the best part- THE REWARD!!
For each accomplished milestone, you need to reward yourself. Maybe it’s a new outfit, a one hour massage, or dining out at your favorite restaurant. It is critical to write down the milestones and rewards and place them somewhere you can see them daily. I like putting mine in the bathroom because I am guaranteed to see them in the morning while getting ready for my day and in the evening before bed.
There you have it. A step-by-step approach to eliminating old habits and creating new, healthier ones. I believe you have all the power you need to follow through. I am cheering for you love!
With love and respect,