Forming good habits: Part 1

What are habits?

Put simply, habits are automatic routines or behaviours. Habits are useful for us as they allow us to take action and get things done without too much energy or mental effort. Many of our routines or habits occur on automatic pilot, which is easy for our brain. These well-worn neural pathways are incredibly handy for helping us get things done quickly. However the pathways can be more of a slippery slope when we want to change habits. Luckily, understanding how habits work makes them easier to take charge of.

How do habits work? What’s happening in our brains?

Charles Duhigg, author of a new book called The Power of Habit, has identified a three-step loop to explain the process that goes on in our brains to create habits. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Neurological studies have shown that, over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The neural pathway or connection in the brain between the cue and reward become intertwined. We may notice this connection as a craving. For example, I walk past the bakery (cue) and feel like a custard square (reward). Rewards can be obvious (like the sugar high the custard square provides) or barely noticeable (perhaps a sense of relief when we complete a piece of work).

While this loop process is efficient, it is also particularly tricky to change. The reason for this is that most cues and rewards happen super-fast, fast enough that we may not be aware of them – I didn’t even notice I was eating the chocolate until I was putting the wrapper in the rubbish….

Ideally then, we want to set up habits that are useful for us and to change habits that aren’t. While this sounds easy, unfortunately there isn’t a magic pill or a quick easy route to forming good habits. But we do know some tricks to make the process easier.

Exercise: Identify your current habits

1. The first step to forming good habits is awareness and paying more attention to them. We want to put our habits under a little scrutiny, to see how they check out.

2. Think about and write down your typical day/week and what you do – what kinds of routines do you have?

3. You may have routines or habits that are helpful for you and that you are perfectly happy with. Great. Note down what these good habits are:

  • How did you form these habits?
  • What has helped you to keep them going?

4. What actions do you take that you don’t like/make things difficult for you?

  • How did you form these habits?
  • What keeps them going? (What are the rewards?).

Tip: If you get stuck or are not sure about the answers to these questions – ask someone close to you whom you trust for ideas.

Write a list of good habits you would like to form

Once you have all your ideas written down, have a look and see if the list looks manageable for you. If it looks a little overwhelming, it’s fine to choose one or two new habits to work on, then come back to the others.

Tip: Try for a new habit or a positive action instead of trying to stop a bad habit, e.g. “I want to eat more fruit each day” (instead of “I should eat less chocolate”). We are more likely to succeed if we add something rather than take something away (as this can make us feel deprived and kick back on the new habit).

Find new cues and rewards

For each habit, figure out what cue (signal) will prompt you to action the habit, and how you can link a reward to the habit. For example, “I will leave my walking shoes right by the front door so I fall over them when I get home – this will remind me to go and walk. Then when I have completed a walk, my reward will be reading the newspaper” (or whatever else you enjoy).

After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a noticeable neurological impulse to put on your walking shoes each evening.

How to give yourself the motivation to change

Motivation is the energy to put something into action instead of simply thinking about it. You may have a good dose of motivation already and that’s a great start if you do.

If yours is a little wobbly, here are some tips for boosting motivation:

  • Have clear, specific goals with time frames attached: I will eat two pieces of fruit at morning tea every day, I will leave the office for 10 minutes of fresh air before lunch each work day.
  • Start small and build on each achievement: I will walk for 5 minutes each day; when I can do this without puffing, I will walk for 10, then 15, then 20 minutes.
  • Alternatively, if you do best with something big to aim for, set yourself a challenge – enrol for a sports event, or a holiday where you need to be fit.
  • Set up and use support – from family, friends, colleagues, neighbours.
  • Expect and plan for setbacks and potential blocks. Having more to do at work, or feeling tired, or having to care for sick children can upset our plans and make it harder to keep going with the new habit. Therefore it helps to:
  • Have a back-up plan – what you will do if it rains, or your support person isn’t around, or how to keep it going when work gets very busy.
  • Be kind to yourself when you lapse and slip back into old habits. It can help to remind yourself of all the times you have put the new habit into practice.
  • Keep a record of all the times you do practise your new habit. Writing down successes boosts that sense of reward or accomplishment and strengthens the neural pathway of the new habit.

Exercise: Boost your motivation

Think about and write down the ideas you like, and any others you have for boosting your motivation. How are you going to action these ideas?

Consider sharing these with someone else for extra support.

Tip: The other important principle about motivation is that it often follows action. Just getting started can kick-start your motivation to follow through and complete a task. The Nike Company got it right with its slogan: “Just Do It!” For example, you might be feeling tired and not motivated to do any exercise, but you put on your exercise gear and go outside – and that is enough to get you started.

Where to start – take action!

OK, let’s put these plans into action.

Check that you have had a go at the previous exercises:

  • Identify your current habits
  • Write a list of good habits you would like to form
  • Find new cues and rewards
  • Boost your motivation

Let’s look at 3 more important principles for setting you up to succeed with forming new habits.

  1. Practise, practise, practise! Practising or repeating the new habit regularly helps to strengthen the new connection between cue-routine-reward. The more you practise, the stronger this connection becomes and the more likely your new habit becomes automatic. Research on forming new habits has also found that early practice is helpful and leads to greater increases in automaticity. So the rule of thumb here is to action the new habit as much as possible.
  2. Look for early evidence that this new habit is paying off – maybe you are less breathless walking up the stairs at work, or you notice you reach for fruit instead of a custard square. As with the motivation tips, you may want to write down these pay-offs to help you pay attention to them, and give yourself credit for making these changes.
  3. Be your own cheerleader – give yourself lots of praise and encouragement for all your efforts. Be kind to yourself when you slip up: “Forming new habits isn’t easy, sometimes I’ll slip up…I’ll have a look at my support and rewards to see how I can do better.”

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