At the beginning of 2020 I decided I wanted a learning goal for the year. Something to obsess over that would add value to my life personally and professionally. What I found myself gravitating towards was habits and habit formation.
When I was a PT in the gym I remember the hardest part of getting clients to commit to the gym and improving their food choices was always getting them to modify their current habits. I figured making habits my learning goal for this year would be perfect as it will not only improve my life, but will also contribute to my professional goal of helping my friends, family, and followers better understand themselves.
We have all felt these "autopilot" moments in our lives, and they are actually beneficial in some cases. But in the case of self-destructive habits, or habits that lead to unhealthy behaviours, like binge eating and being more sedentary than active, new habits are required to take their place in order to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
This is why I want to learn everything there is to learn about habits, willpower, cravings, and everything else that goes along with it.
Why do we have habits?
Habits and the neurological mechanisms that control them come from the ancient part of our brain. When life was more wild and our only priorities were to stay alive and procreate our brains created a system to ensure we could achieve those things without allocating too much energy or attention to them. Taking down prey was a dangerous task at times and so those who could do it without wasting time ended up being the most successful.
Nowadays our habits help us ride bikes, drive cars, and in exceptional cases, help athletes like Michael Phelps win a gold medal despite his goggles being completely filled with water.
Our brain creates habits so that we can get everyday tasks done without having to give much attention or energy to them. This gives us more energy to pay attention to new things we may encounter in our day to day lives. In this way habits are useful to us.
How do we create habits?
Habits are created through something called a habit loop. We may not even realize we are creating habits, but new habits are being formed every day. Think about when you go to the door and have to put on your shoes. Which shoe do you put on first? If it has laces, do you bend down to tie your laces, or prop your shoe up on something. This is a task that most of us perform every day and therefore our brains created a habit to make it easier for us.
The habit loop includes 3 parts: Cue/Trigger, Routine, and Reward. In the case of the shoes, your cue is going to the door with the intention of leaving the house. The routine is putting on the shoes. The reward is having shoes on to protect your feet when you go outside. It is as simple as that.
Some habits are far more complex than this one, but for the sake of keeping this article simple, I'll just stick to the common habits you may encounter every day.
If you want to create a new habit you need to first figure out what your cue will be. Once you have a cue that you can reproduce every time you want to activate this habit, then you need to create the routine that follows. Let's say you want to start going to the gym in the morning. Your cue would be waking up and maybe having a cup of coffee. Then you would get your gym gear ready and head off to the gym. There is your routine. The final piece is very important. The reward is what makes the habits stick. If your brain can experience something positive, like a rush of endorphins, then it will deem this a beneficial habit. For some, simply getting themselves to the gym is the reward. For others, they may need to incorporate something physical to reward themselves for going to the gym. This could be posting about it on social media and getting support from friends, or having their favourite protein shake after the gym. Anything that adds value and can behave as a reward after a desired routine is created will help to solidify the habit.
What about bad habits? Can we get rid of them?
A bad habit will look different to every person. The way someone perceives something bad is subjective to their personal experiences, values, and ideas for what they want their life to look like. So if you want to change a "bad" habit in your life it is important to know that the brain is pretty tough to change, but not impossible.
Knowing that habits are created via the habit loop (cue, routine, reward), if you can identify the cue for a bad habit, then you can interrupt the habit before it begins to play out. In this case you will need a little help from 2 friends - belief and willpower.
Willpower, as observed by many studies, is a finite resource that we can train to become stronger. Every day we are provided with the amount of willpower we have trained ourselves to use on a regular basis. If we wish to have more willpower than we have now, then we have to put our willpower on a training program, slowly adding more and more instances of willpower into our lives.
The second friend, belief, is sometimes a tough friend to count on. Your ability to believe in yourself is based on a lifetime of others believing in you (or not), and your own individual practice of believing in yourself.
If you can get belief and willpower on your side, then changing a habit is much easier. All you need to do is identify the cue for the bad habit, then interrupt it with a new routine. For example, let's say you have a cue of every day on your way home from work you stop by a coffee shop and pick up a coffee and cookie. After months of doing this, those cookies are starting to add up and your bank account isn't loving those regular expenses. So your cue is driving home from work. To change the routine you can do something like take a different exit and take a new route home. You could even go to the coffee shop and get just a coffee, but no cookie. This last option is the least disruptive but will require more willpower. You could even offer to have a carpool with a colleague, creating a new environment in the car when you are going home that would likely distract you from even thinking about the coffee and cookie.
For the final piece, there needs to be a reward to make this habit change worth it to your brain. So when you get home, maybe you make your own cup of coffee. You could prep a different snack to have when you get home, or treat yourself to some relaxation time with Netflix or some music. Whatever the case may be, just make sure the reward is worth it.
My final tip for changing habits:
Don't overwhelm yourself. You may have a number of habits you would like to create for yourself, and that's great! But the mind can only handle so much change at one time. Be patient, and try to only tackle 1 or 2 habits at a time.
If it is any motivation to you to take things slowly, research has found that when individuals start to change just 1 habit in their life, the probability of them beginning to naturally and unconsciously change other habits increases.
They call these keystone habits. They are the habits that once created/changed create a ripple effect through all of our habits and can change our lives in so many more ways than we originally thought.
So take it easy on yourself and try changing just 1 habit in the next month using the cue, routine, and reward loop as your guide.
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.