How to Start or Stop a Habit

Still working on my mini-makeover program in preparation for my haircut appointment.  No final decision as to style.  Other goals include losing the comfort-food bloat, adding toning and stretching to my walking routine, and upping my skincare game.  Look good.  Feel better.

I am no exception to the rule that most of our activities and the results we obtain in life are driven by habits. It made sense for me to do some research on creating new habits and overwriting bad ones.  In search of answers, I’ve been listening to a book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do (2012).  It’s a look at the importance of habits in our day-to-day lives and how we can take advantage of our awareness of habit patterns to make subtle changes that bring positive outcomes.

Some of the stories Duhigg has told thus far in my listening include how a man managed to live with no memories from the past 20 years–including the last five minutes–by the strength of habits; and how advertisers get us to insert new habits into our daily routine that just happen to require the use of their products.  Did you know that before an advertising guru began his marketing efforts for Pepsodent Toothpaste, only 7% of the American population brushed their teeth on a regular basis?  Eew!

According to Duhigg, we form habits when we are confronted with a cue, perform an action or routine and then gain a reward.  Once we get so invested in the reward that we begin to crave it, we will continue to pursue that reward even if the routine becomes distasteful or detrimental to our health and safety.

To start a new habit, it is helpful to tie it to a familiar trigger or cue.  An example of this is brushing your teeth in the morning.  For me the cue is finishing my bath.  Routine is brushing teeth with minty toothpaste.  The fresh mouth feel and sense of being ready to start the day are the rewards.  Given that example, one way I could set up a new exercise habit, since I work from home, is to use the cue of turning off my work computer to turn on a 30-minute toning and stretching video.  If I have a healthy snack as my reward, and make it something really yummy, I will set up a cue, routine, reward cycle that will help me carry through with my plan when I might not if I wasn’t anticipating that snack!  The reward must be crave-worthy! It should also be immediate as the long-term goal of being fit, toned and limber isn’t as effective in the moment as an immediate reward, though holding the vision of that result is an important incentive.

What if you or I need to stop a bad habit? Just telling ourselves to stop the routine doesn’t work.  The cue will come, the reward is still desirable, so the key to changing the habit is to substitute a new routine in response to the old cue which offers the same reward.  If my after-work habit (cue) was to call up my sister and share the days happenings over a few vodka tonics (routine), then the new cycle might be to end work (cue),  call my sister over Facetime and exercise together (routine).  The reward is still the same: I get the comradery and support of someone I love.  A good habit overwrites the bad one.

The book suggests that it is important for us to look at our system of cues and rewards in reference to our current bad habits.  What habits would you like to change?  What’s happening when you start the routine?  What’s the reward?  What activity could you substitute that would give you a similar reward?  Duhigg discusses a young woman who bit her fingernails to bloody numbs.  In examining the cycle, she saw that boredom was the trigger and physical sensation was the reward.  She was able to stop biting her nails by becoming hyper-aware of the cycle and substituting something such as slapping her hands on the table that created the physical sensation she craved.

I’ll use Duhiggs research to look at some of my habit patterns and make sure that they are serving me well in my quest for happiness and better health.  What new habits would you like to form?  What ones would you like to trade in for some more productive routines?

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