Are you a creature of habit? Hint: The answer is YES! 🙂
Most of the tasks you do each day aren’t conscious decisions, they are deeply ingrained habits. Habits are performed on autopilot because your brain is a highly efficient organ hell-bent on conserving energy. Imagine how much harder it would be to perform simple tasks if you had to think about every step of the process. For example, tying your shoes: If you had to think about each step like a 5 year old who just learned, getting out the door for your morning run would take a lot longer!
After you complete an action enough times the same way, your brain gets the hint and you no longer have to think so hard because it becomes a habit. The more often you complete an action, in the same manner, in the same environment, at roughly the same time, the more deeply ingrained it becomes…which is great, until you try to change it.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg easily explains the process of habit formation. Simply, you perform an action based on a cue that triggers the action. Imagine that one day you feel tired at 2pm. To pick yourself up you walk to the nearest coffee shop and buy a coffee. The coffee tastes great and does the trick! Your brain files this away as a rewarding experience, you got pleasure from it. Pleasurable feelings that accompany a habit increases the power of the habit!
The next day, you imagine that you feel tired again at about 2pm. Your brain remembers that yesterday you bought a coffee and felt much better afterward, so you decide to go to the same coffee shop and buy another coffee. The process begins to repeat itself, and soon everyday you are buying a coffee at 2pm. Ta-da, a habit has formed! Though habits are psychological, this coffee habit can have physiological consequences. Caffeine is a drug, and you can develop a tolerance to it. This is how habits can become dangerous addictions. Your brain will seek to recreate the pleasurable experience of the first time you bought a coffee. Over time, you may need more and more coffee to get the same jolt until you are literally addicted to coffee.
Good habits go can unquestioned. I love waking up every morning for a run. There are some mornings where it is harder to go for a run, but I do it anyway. I’ve done this enough that my morning run routine has become a habit. If I don’t run in the morning, I feel the negative consequences: I will be sluggish, moody, and feel guilty. These negative feelings will reinforce my habit for the next day.
Just like new habits are formed, old habits can be broken! This is finally the motivational part of the post, after all this is ‘Monday Motivation’! The brain has plasticity, this means that new things can constantly be learned, but it does get harder to change as we age! So it’s a good idea to establish healthy eating habits and exercise routines in young adulthood!
Steps to change a negative habit:
- Identify the negative consequences of the habit.
- Identify the ‘cue’ or actions that prelude the habit.
- Identify the environment of the habit.
- Imagine the positive consequences of NOT doing the habit.
- Find a similar action that is positive to fill the place of the negative habit.
- Repeat the new positive action in response to the ‘cue’ or in the environment your old habit was performed.
- Have supportive friends and get rid of people who sabotage your efforts.
- Reward yourself.
The first step is deciding that you really want to change. You need to commit to breaking a bad habit 100%, because your brain and environment are extremely powerful and you must be vigilant against trickery in the beginning. Record all the things that lead up to the bad habit, and all the details that surround your bad habit, as well as the negative feelings you have afterward. This record will help you understand where you are tripping up everyday. Once you have identified all these cues and triggers, you will know what to avoid in the future. Or if a trigger is unavoidable, you will be aware enough to avoid going on autopilot and continuing to perform the bad habit.
You cannot simply NOT do the bad habit, unfortunately. You may manage to stop yourself from doing it a few times by sheer willpower, but unless you replace the old habit with something new, eventually your willpower will weaken and the old habit will return. The new habit needs to be rewarding, so that it is something you want to do. If it is not rewarding in itself, you may want to add additional incentives for motivation.
Here’s an example from personal experience:
My student bus pass expired at the end of June this summer. I had been riding the bus to my internship in the morning, then to work and then home everyday. Once my bus pass expired, I had to physically hand over $5 for an adult day pass every day. In addition to this monetary burden, the buses were constantly late and caused me daily stress and frustration. After a couple of weeks, the negative consequences became too much for me to handle and I began to think seriously about cycling to my internship and work every day instead. At first, this seemed like a burden, I would have to carry my bike up and down the stairs everyday and it would be more tiresome to cycle everywhere (I’m kinda lazy). But day after day of frustration and bus fare finally became too much and one morning I decided to go for it and bike to my internship and work instead.
It was hard, my body wasn’t used to it and my brain questioned why I was doing it. But I earned immediate gratification in the form of pride in my accomplishment and an extra $5 in my pocket. I calculated that I would save $25-35 a week, up to $140 a month from biking. I would also get fitter, and save myself the stress of adhering to a bus schedule. It helped that the weather was beautiful and Portland is a bike-friendly city.
I began biking everyday. I grew fitter and the biking became easier. I saved time (my bike route is faster than the bus route), I got exercise, I saved money, I reduced my stress, and I was in control of my schedule instead of the other way around. Now I love biking everywhere! I’ve invested in my new healthy habit by buying a good road bike to replace my free, but very heavy, mountain bike that I rode all summer. The rain is coming back to Portland, and so I have bought fenders. I’m thinking ahead for the winter and know I must buy some warm gear so I can keep riding. I just love the way I feel, and I have gotten to see more of the beauty of Portland by bike.
This is a great example of how a new action can take the place of a bad habit. I identified my bad habit and the negative consequences of it. I knew the environmental cues and reasons why I took the bus. I found a new habit to take the old habit’s place, which came with positive rewards. My environment supported my new habit. I repeated my new habit of cycling everyday.
Do the positive thing you want to do and when you begin to reap the benefits it will become a habit and your brain will learn to want it. This applies to everything that we do, good or bad. (Yes, bad habits have positive rewards too).
Remember, all habits begin with one conscious decision. Today, you can make a conscious decision to do something better! Go for that bike ride, prepare your own healthy lunch! Like everything worthwhile, it will be hard in the beginning….but how many other things have you done that were hard in the beginning and are now easy?
Happy Monday 🙂
Let me know, what will your new habit be?