At the start of every year, at least half of us promise to form new habits or break old ones, and although most of us won’t keep these vows, hope springs eternal. It turns out that habits are made up of three parts, referred to as a “habit loop.” Every pattern we form, including those we don’t even think about, like brushing our teeth or making our bed, is developed from the same blueprint. There’s always a cue, although we usually aren’t conscious of the trigger. The routine is the behavior itself, such as turning off the lights when we leave the room or checking that the front door is locked before turning in for the night. Finally, the reward is what pushes us to keep carrying out the pattern. Why do we turn off the lights before leaving the room? We do it to save on energy costs.
Once we have formed a habit, the brain can virtually go to sleep as we effortlessly reach for the cereal box every morning or head straight for the couch after a long day. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that we will always perform automated behaviors in the same way as long as we are in the same environment. As long as we are standing where we always do, we will put on our right shoe first and then the left. If we go on vacation, though, and are in a new environment, maybe we will put the left shoe on first and never recognize that something has changed. This is why many people find it easier to start a new habit while on vacation. Some people are even able to successfully quit smoking while on vacation and out of their typical environment because whether they know it or not, the sight of the kitchen table or the sound of traffic in front of their house is triggering the desire to light up.
People moving into a new home or a new neighborhood, having their first child, or starting a job in an entirely new field can quickly form new habits – their entire environment and routine are already being reshuffled. The basis of alcoholics anonymous, narcotics anonymous, and overeaters anonymous is changing habits and forming new routines.
While some people may feel like it’s too late for them to break a habit, the truth is that it’s never too late. Once you understand the cue and the reward, it’s much easier to make meaningful changes. When you know that you eat potato chips when you’re angry after work and that the reward of eating those chips is relief or numbing of emotions- you can figure out other ways to alleviate your post-work feelings.
So if you’re looking to break a habit, first consider what you’re getting from the habit. What does the habit do for you, and how could you replicate that reward? Repetition is essential for forming a new habit; this is how you encourage your brain to crave the reward. In other words, if you don’t want to do something often, you’re not going to do it for very long at all. It’s also very important to anticipate times or events that could cause you to lose sight of the end goal. If you’re trying to stop smoking, you should recognize and prepare for difficulty at an upcoming party or in the days leading up to a tight deadline.
Trying to make many lifestyle changes at one time is never a good idea. It’s best to make a list of all of the changes you want to make and then decide on their order of priority. Once you’ve successfully conquered one, your confidence level will help to inspire you as you crush the next.
A similar recommendation is to break down your big habits into small ones and focus on one at a time. You can’t lose 50 pounds today, but you can pay attention to what you eat and chew thoroughly at your next meal. If you start with 10 minutes of exercise every morning before work, you may eventually be able to build up to 30 minutes every morning and 30 minutes every evening. If you try to force yourself to exercise for 60 minutes right now, you will likely become deflated and give up altogether.
Telling yourself that you’re going to give up junk food but keeping your cabinets stocked with snack cakes and potato chips is self-defeating. Instead, stock up on the kinds of snacks that you can envision your best self eating, but make sure that they are things that you enjoy. Forcing yourself to eat tuna if you hate fish is literally a recipe for disaster.
Share your success with others – report your wins on social media or in private conversation to a trusted ally. Even recording your results privately in a journal can be quite rewarding. Draw a meter and color in every small win (such as a pound lost or a dollar saved) that you achieve, or draw a line through every successful day on a calendar.
Choose a goal that resonates with you and go for it but be sure to make time to bask in the glow of your achievements – doing so can have a domino effect on your entire life.