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Learn Healthy Habits Scientifically

February 15, 2018

A common New Year’s resolution story

Vowing my 2018 New Year’s resolutions would stick, I pursued a healthier lifestyle. Daily flossing. Exercise. Healthy foods. More sleep. I charged into my new routine with a new pack of floss and a Fit Bit. Like Khaleesi claiming her right to the Iron Throne, nothing would stop me!

Nothing but homemade chocolate chip cookies and a who-done-it novel that sucked me deep into the plot until 2:00 A.M. Characters, flossing, and sleep suffered that night. Then, tired the next day, I skipped my after-work walk. Instead, I binged on CNN and the last of the Christmas peppermint bark. From there I spiraled to familiar ground. Within a week or so, I’d relegated my Fit Bit to the bathroom drawer, where it sat by my sporadically used floss. Now, when I open that drawer, I hear the Talking Heads refrain: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…”[i]

Chances are, you have a similar story

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, in 2017, only 9.2% of people felt they were successful in achieving their resolutions. That means that a lot of you can relate to my story. But it also means that the 9.2% that are successful are worth studying.

If the only exercise you’re getting is kicking yourself, stop

For a long time, psychologists believed that 9.2% possessed super willpower. Now neuroscientists and psychologists better understand how our brains turn repeated behaviors into habits. According to Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, it’s not about willpower. It’s about teaching your brain to take a repeated healthy behavior and program it to automatic pilot.

Brain scanners show that different parts of our brain activate as we repeat a new behavior. When we first start establishing a new behavior, our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are active. That’s decision-making-central in our nervous system. Yet when the new behavior is repeated and rewarded, the brain creates a new neural pathway, and activity shifts to the basal ganglial areas, specifically the putamen. This part of the brain allows us to do things automatically without thinking about them. Sort of a habitat for habits. And this area is busy. For at least 43% of what we do in a day is performed automatically, or out of habit.

One reason it’s so hard to break an unhealthy habit is because once our brain establishes a neural pathway, it’s there. We can create new, healthier pathways, however, and our brains will eventually default to those instead. Once that has occurred, we have a new habit.

How to create a new habit

According to Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habitthere are three steps to creating a new habit. Duhigg calls these steps “the habit loop.” They are: cue, reward, routine. I’ll illustrate a habit loop using my after-work walk.

1. Set a cue as a reminder.

  • What will remind you to walk after work? The answer to this is different for everyone. Perhaps it’s taking your walking shoes with you to work. Or maybe it’s leaving your walking shoes and the dog leash where you must step over them when you return home. Whatever it is, make sure you set it up before you leave for work. That cue should be the first after-work thing you see.
  • Try out a couple cues. If the leash and shoes don’t work, try something else. A friend to walk with or a reminder on your phone. Whatever it is, make sure it’s consistent.
  • A cue must be visual and immediately accessible.

2. Choose a reward.

  • What will motivate you? Your reward needs to be immediate and enjoyable. Maybe there’s a podcast you love to listen to when you walk. Or music you love. Or an audio book. Perhaps it’s the place you like to walk that is the reward. Even a piece of chocolate at the end of the walk is okay as long as you truly enjoy and look forward to it.
  • After several days, check in with yourself. When you see the cue, do you start to crave the reward? Can you hardly wait to hit the road and listen to a next chapter or a new band? Are you eager to get to the place you like to walk? If so, you’re training your brain and creating a new habit. If not, if it’s all still a drag, you need a new reward.

3. Live your new routine.

  • Write down your routine. If you’ve tested your cue and reward, and everything is working, write this new routine down as a formula. Duhigg advises writing it down like this:
    “This year when I see… my walking shoes & dog leash on the entry mat, (cue)
    I will… walk for 30 minutes (behavior)
    in order to… listen to my favorite podcasts.” (reward)

Here are 5 things to keep in mind:

1. It takes a long time to establish a new habit. Be patient with yourself.

Depending upon the behavior, the person, and the environment, creating a new habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. A simpler habit like flossing will take less time.

2. Identify how your unhealthy habits serve you.

Does sugar give you an energy boost? Do you alleviate stress with food? Wine? Once you figure out what you get from these, you discover how they reward you. If you need a mid-afternoon energy boost, a banana might work. You can alleviate stress in so many ways short of food and wine. Here are 16 ideas that even include chewing gum, which is good for your teeth, provided its sugarless.

3. Get triggering temptations out of the house, and solicit your family’s support.

If you’re trying to replace a cookie habit with crisp apple slices, and you come home to find your husband bought out the local Girl Scouts’ Thin Mints, you’ve got a problem. Reinforce your process with your family, and remind them that your habit changing is about your improving your health.

4. Keep your healthy options visible and easily accessible.

  • If you read too late into the night, set your phone alarm, and go to bed an hour earlier so you can read. If you have to, set another alarm to remind you to shut your book.
  • If you forget to floss, get different kinds of flossing devices (dental floss picks, soft piks, flavored floss) and keep all of it in a pretty glass bowl right next to your toothbrush.
  • Have sliced fruit and veggies at eye level in the refrigerator. If you have to stop and prepare these, you’ll be more likely to stray into unhealthy choices, especially when you’re tired or stressed.

5. Be a good teacher to your brain.

  • Be the kind of teacher to your brain that you’d want for your child. Make sure you apply core teaching principles to the task.
  • Teaching your brain new habits takes patience. Every new habit will take practice.
  • Your brain needs the necessary time and opportunity to learn the new habit.
  • Remember what best motivates you is what motivates your brain: positive reinforcement and a personalized reward.
  • Celebrate success! Regroup and move on from failures.
  • Whatever you do, don’t give up on your pupil!

[i] Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” released February 2, 1981, lead single on Remain in Light, Sire Records.

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