HEALTHY HABITS 101
Rewire Your Brain to Create New Routines
Did you know that more than 40% of the actions we take each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits? Fortunately, your brain is malleable and habits are not destiny—it is possible to transform bad habits into healthy habits once you understand how it works.
But how do you even decide which habits you want to introduce? First, I help my clients establish SMART goals. Here’s how a SMART goal breaks down for a simple behavior change:
- Specific – Make it clear and concise. (“I want to drink more water.”)
- Measurable – Set criteria for progress. (“I will drink 64 ounces of water each day.”)
- Action-Oriented – Include action directly in your control. (“I will designate a special glass for drinking water and put reminders on my phone to get up and refill.”)
- Realistic – Ensure it is within reach. (“I have ample access to filtered water.”)
- Timed – Tie it to a timetable. (“Within a month, I will double my daily water intake.”)
Once you have your SMART goal, I encourage you to think about your existing routines and how you can tack on your new habit. I find that “if/then” statements work well for this. For example, IF you check your email first thing in the morning, THEN you’ll grab a glass of water to drink while reading messages. As you’ll find in the following section, your “IF” is also your “Cue.”
Your Brain + Habits
Habits emerge because your brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains what he calls a “Habit Loop”:
- Cue = the trigger tells your brain to go on automatic mode and let a behavior unfold
- Routine = the behavior; it can be physical or mental or emotional
- Reward = something your brain likes; it wants to hold onto this pattern for the future
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic and a habit is born. And as a cue gets more established and associated with a routine and a reward, the brain works less and less because the prefrontal cortex (the “newer” part of the brain responsible for decision-making) goes to sleep, and the basal ganglia (the “older” part of the brain responsible for emotion, memory, and pattern recognition) takes over—freeing up space for you to focus on other things. In short: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.
The trick to transforming a habit is to examine the cue, and the reward, and come up with an alternative routine to take its place—one that will deliver the same reward.
For example, if your unhealthy habit loops looks like this:
- Cue = you feel bored
- Routine = you mindlessly snack
- Reward = boredom is alleviated….. temporarily.
You could replace the routine with a different activity, such as:
- Going for a short, brisk walk or doing 15 jumping jacks
- Grabbing an ice-cold glass of water
- Answering a few questions of a crossword puzzle
Focus on Foundational Habits
When it comes to healthy living, I like to invest the most energy into “Foundational Habits.” A Foundational Habit is simply a habit that can trigger widespread change in your lifestyle, as it effects many other habits. Exercising is considered a Foundational Habit in that it often triggers a desire to eat healthier, prioritize self-care, and more.
Above all else, belief in the ability to change is integral to the ability to change. Change occurs among other people. When you join a group where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
To your good health,