Understanding and Building Healthy Habits

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 University states that over 40% of our daily 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 such as brushing our teeth, some astoundingly complex like 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 and the 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 weight loss as 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, and reward, embed it in an already existing habit, and keep doing it, over time the new habit will emerge, and over time become even more powerful than its unwanted predecessor.

In Madison, you see lots of people out there doing healthy things. Maybe it’s time to join them. We can work with you to set up specific steps, reinforcements, and accountability so that you have a better chance at dropping the negative habits you want to be free of and replacing them with the positive ones you have always hoped for. The bike path is waiting!