Get in the Habit!

When the alarm goes off, I swing my bare feet to the floor and pad into the bathroom, brush my teeth, put in my lenses, then dress. I walk down the stairs and into the living room, sit down in the middle of the rug, set my timer for between 6 and 12 minutes, and proceed to meditate. The house is quiet and dim, my dog has learned not to expect me to come in right away, and stays quietly tucked in his bed.

This morning I realized that I have finally made this a habit. Meditation — although enormously effective, and something I try to get everyone I know to try — has been incredibly hard to integrate into my daily routine. Now most mornings, I don’t even think about it — I just do it. That’s a habit. But it has taken years and lots of experimentation to make it stick. Knowing I should wasn’t enough. Even wanting to wasn’t enough. I had to understand how to do it to make it work.

I have always had a problem with New Year’s resolutions. A recent article in the Washington Post By Wendy Wood (Five Myths About Our Habits, 12/31/15) stated that 50% of Americans vow to change behavior as of January 1, and all of 8% of them do so, with 25% giving up after the first week (that’s right about now). Clearly, changing habits is not so easy.

Habits are incredibly important in how we live our lives. What we do moment by moment, what we eat, what we say, how we dress, spend, work, and love is driven largely by habit.  A 2006 estimate out of Duke U states that over 40% of daily our actions are determined not by decision or choice, but by habit. Thus over time, habits are extremely powerful in determining everything about our happiness, well-being, health, wealth, and relationships.

Habits are amazingly efficient ways for us to organize behavior — they literally replace thinking. They become automatic circuits that run on their own without need for supervision from conscious awareness. We rely on these automatic sequences (known as chunks) for many daily activities, some relatively simple — brushing our teeth — some astoundingly complex — backing out of the garage and driving to work. Habits increase efficiency and conserve effort. In fact, when a habit is in place, the brain largely stops participating.

Habits function in three steps. There is a cue, or trigger that tells the brain to activate a chunk or routine, there is the routine, which can be physical, mental, or emotional, and there is a reward. Cue: time to go to work, Routine: back out of the driveway and drive there, Reward: arrive at destination (hopefully on time). Cue: feeling stress, Routine: eat something, Reward: sweetness/fullness/distraction.

Habits are extremely robust, and laziness or lack of will power have nothing to do with our difficulty changing them. They are physical pathways in our brains that run regardless of outcome. Once the cue is issued, the automatic routine is so compelling, we will complete it even if there are unpleasant consequences. Remember, where habit is, thinking is not.

Because of their sturdy nature, one approach to habit change is to capitalize on the already established neural loop of an old habit. You keep the old cue, and deliver the same reward, but insert a new routine. Cue: feeling stress, New Routine: jog for 20 minutes then eat something if you still want it, Reward: sweetness, fullness, distraction andthe endorphins from running, as well as satisfaction from doing something positive. However, even with this technique, you have to believe you can do it, and you have to keep it up for far longer than the 30 days often touted.

Hopefully this helps explain why the old “I am going to lose 10 pounds” approach to New Year’s Resolutions is doomed to fail. Habit formation and change is incredibly complex. BUT, if you pick one important habit, deliberately break it down into cue, routine, reward, embed it in an already existing habit, and keep doing it, over time the new habit will emerge. But you have to believe that you can, and you have to keep at it.

I love my morning walks with my dog — I get to be outside, watch him sniff and roll in the snow while the birds are waking up and few people are around. I have gotten up and walked a dog most mornings of my adult life. By embedding my meditation in before my walks, believing I could do it, and persisting for many days, I have finally managed to make it a habit. So pick one thing, think it through carefully, and try it. Believe you can do it, and don’t expect to have it in place until and this time next year. Then you’ll have something to brag about, and can start working on the next one!