Get in the (healthy) habit
|You can exploit your brain’s natural patterns to build better behaviorsBy Jessica C. Kraft
Most of us don’t default to healthy habits. It takes planning and effort, and sometimes a surge of self-discipline, to eat right, exercise, get the sleep we need, and stay on top of work and life tasks. Establishing new habits, let alone purging bad ones, can require major effort, especially if we are also struggling with depression or anxiety. Luckily, research into how habits form shows we can harness our automatic behaviors to foster a healthier lifestyle. The new field of “habit design”— based on the premise that our habits are surprisingly malleable throughout life—lets us reap the benefits of recent science to set ourselves up for success.
1. Begin with belief. Our brains cling to unhelpful behaviors like smoking, watching endless TV, or snacking on junk food because we are wired to seek pleasure. All those activities typically deliver immediate, powerful bursts of happy neurotransmitters to our brains.
Resisting those pleasures, or doing tasks that do not deliver an immediate reward, requires an effort we’ll call willpower—a quality that scientists are finding varies widely from person to person, and even within an individual across a single day. So how do we strengthen that trait?
Two psychologists at Stanford University, Carol Dweck and Greg Walton, discovered that willpower can be boosted by the power of attitude. They found that people who believe willpower is self-renewing performed better as they went through a series of cognitive tests than those who were convinced they had only a limited amount of willpower.
So practicing positive affirmations such as “strenuous work can be energizing” may enable us to find more resources when fatigue starts to set in.
2. Learn your habit loops. In his popular book The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg explains the neurological structure of habit formation and how to exploit the “habit loop” in order to make healthy changes. We cycle through three stages for every habit, good or bad.
First, a “cue” triggers the habitual behavior. The cue stimulates production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s “pleasure center,” pushing us to act on a desire. The cue often links to a particular place, time of day, emotional state, group of people, or set of actions.
Phone alerts, for instance, are powerful cues that trigger you to check your messages. Each time you hear your phone beep, your brain sends out a burst of the neurotransmitter dopamine that makes you anticipate the pleasure of social contact. In terms of an unwelcome habit, the cue might be a late-night craving that sends you to the kitchen.
“Routine,” the second stage in the habit loop, is the behavior itself: the message-checking or cupcake-scarfing.
Finally, there is the “reward.” Activation of the brain’s opioid system gives you a feeling of pleasure and cements your desire to repeat the behavior.
t’s almost impossible to erase a specific dopamine-opioid circuit once it’s established in the brain. We can, however, overwrite it by substituting a different routine in the middle of the loop. This requires paying attention to our patterns, perhaps by keeping a habit journal.
3. Refine your reward.
Changing a habit loop also requires an open mind and a willingness to experiment, because it can take some time to fully understand the motivation behind certain actions.
You may think the urge to turn on the TV after dinner is motivated by your desire to hear the news. But if you try replacing the TV with the radio—both, after all, are good sources of news—and still find that you want to watch TV, then something else lies behind your habit loop.
You may need to experiment to find out what is driving the behavior. Is it boredom? Loneliness? A need to relax?
Substituting different responses will help you identify what reward your brain is really craving. If zoning out to the TV is a stress response, maybe a bout of energetic dancing would restore your equilibrium and help you use your evening more productively. If you’re lonely, perhaps calling a friend will provide the same reward that watching TV currently does.
4. Give yourself some space.
In order to replace deeply ingrained habits, it helps to hit the pause button in whatever ways possible. Steph Habif, PhD, a San Francisco-based behavioral scientist who helps health insurance consumers design healthy lifestyles, calls this “inserting time and space” in the habit loop.
To overcome TV watching, for instance, you might set up an obstacle for yourself like keeping your remote in the freezer. Having to retrieve the remote creates an opportunity to reconsider your behavior and call a friend instead, while your chilled hand provides a tactile reminder of your intention to do something different.
Once you have a good fix on your particular cue and reward, Habif says, “you need to practice something else every time your habit gets triggered. This may be as simple as taking two deep breaths every time your phone beeps and you get the urge to check your messages.”
Or if your habit is having multiple drinks in the evening, try to sip a glass of water between glasses of wine.
“The routine of drinking is the same, but you’ve changed the content of the liquid, and inserted space and time into the habit loop, which will help you gain control over it,” she says.
5. Make new habits.
The habit loop can be commandeered to help you establish new routines. Jeff Halevy, a personal trainer in New York City, has seen clients find success with a simple formula: tiny change plus immediate reward.
“You start with the smallest possible action of the new habit,” he explains. “Want to floss your teeth? Start by committing to flossing just one tooth. You want to eat healthier? Eat one vegetable at the start of every dinner.”
Then, anchor the small action to something you already do. “Floss that one tooth right after you brush your teeth every night. And then celebrate it!” he says.
While it may seem silly, celebrating your new habit with a quick victory dance or more tangible reward is key to getting the habit to stick. If you’re trying to become a regular exerciser, you might treat yourself to a miniature bar of chocolate every time you get home from the gym (as long as that doesn’t trigger overindulging).
“If you learn to associate your new habit with something you love, that will work in your favor,” says Habif.
Jessica C. Kraft lives in San Francisco and writes for a range of publications, including The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Yoga Journal.
Help at hand
If you have access to a computer, tablet or smart phone, you can find a number of free apps and websites that may help you become more accountable to your goals. For example:
Lose It (loseit.com): An app and web site targeted to weight loss. Users establish a goal weight and a time line for achieving it, then receive a daily calorie budget. There are tools to track their eating, physical activity and sleep, with daily feedback in an attractive graphical format.
Unstuck (unstuck.com): An iPad app that draws on community wisdom to help users get “unstuck” and move on to creating and acting on their plans.
Tiny Habits (tinyhabits.com): A free online course from Stanford University professor B.J.Fogg that helps participants create and keep new habits, with a new five-day session starting every Monday.