In so many cases our habits help us in our everyday lives. We form routines that help us to be more efficient, to remember to turn off the lights when we leave the house, to choose the best route to work, to exercise daily and to set us up for success in our daily lives. But what parts of your routines are helping you and which routines are hurting you?
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do in Business & Life, we form habits based on a simple looping system that is comprised of: Cue, Routine, Reward. The external or internal cue triggers us to engage in a routine that can be both physical or mental which then results in an outcome that if it is determined by the brain as desirable, is from then on considered a “reward” and the habit loop begins to lock in. This habit loop is repeated over and over again until habits become unconscious and we no longer think twice about engaging in these behaviors. We actually start to crave the reward or outcome from our triggers.
Many of these habits and routines can be wonderful for us. Exercising daily at the same time, practicing morning meditation before you start the day, calling a loved one each evening, looking left, right & left again before you cross the street, stopping at a stop sign or red light, can literally save your life.
When does a routine or habit that was once thought of as a ‘”reward” start to be detrimental and how can we change these habits or unlearn these behaviors?
Think of a smoker. This habit could have began as something as simple as the feeling of social acceptance and commodore. The cue, a group leaves a party to go light up, if you are a part of that group and engage in the smoking you feel accepted and therefore it feels like a reward to the brain. If you continue with smoking the rewards in the brain will get much deeper as the chemical effects of the nicotine take their full effect.
This is where the “craving” aspect of our habits begin to take place. Soon as a smoker, the mere mention of a smoke will trigger your brain to crave that reward which at this point is more than just the social interaction. Now not every habit we engage it will effect the body in a chemical way the way smoking does but hopefully this helps paint the picture of how habits can become cravings.
Why is it that we engage in behaviors that we know are bad for us and how to we break the cycle?
Why would I grab a few pieces of candy and eat them every darn time I pass the bowl? Why do I need chocolate after dinner? Why would I stop at star bucks every morning and buy a cup of coffee when I can just make one at home? Why would I continuously self-sabotage my workout routine or clean eating for the sake of a temporary reward?
There is something deeply rooted in all of us due to our brains ability to engage in unconscious habit. Our brains become reliant on these habits then therefore causes us to confuse what is correct for us and what is false information. In Yoga teaching this is known as Avidya (incorrect comprehension) and Vidya (correct understanding).
The good news is, since we know that we are the ones creating these unhealthy habits in our lives we also have the power to change those behaviors.
Duhigg states that in order to break one habit we must attack the routine itself. We must put a new routine in place of the one we are trying to change when that trigger hits. In his book he describes how around 3:00pm everyday he would go to his work cafeteria and buy a cookie. Doing so had caused him to gain weight. In order to break this habit he got to the root of WHY he was doing this. He came to the conclusion that he was bored, craving social interaction (the cafeteria is full of people and provided people to interact with) and hitting an afternoon lull, craving also stimulation (which the cookie provided in the way of sugar). So instead he set out to put a new routine in this place – instead of the cookie, he began to instead take a break to only go socially interact with a friend or colleague away from the cafeteria. This provided for him the social interaction and stimulation. After dedicated practice the habit was broken.
The trick is with changing any habit, the new behaviors we engage in have to result in some reward that is similar to the old one. For example, if you are looking to start exercising and you decide the new routine is running – but you HATE running, the chances of this becoming a habit are slim (unless of course you discover a new passion for pounding the pavement) BUT – if instead your new routine is to meet up with some friends for a Zumba class or meet up for a tough hike or mountain biking ride you will potentially gain the reward of social interaction as well as feeling good from having exercised your body.
A habit that I am trying to break is the routine of coming home from work and slumping on the couch for 4 hours in order to fill my craving to unwind and relax. To break this habit my new routine is to not go directly home from work. To meet up with a friend or go to a Yoga class. The reward is still there, the feeling of unwinding after work, but now with a new and more beneficial routine – hopefully making its way to be a habit .
Think about 1 habit you currently have in your life that is holding you back. What is the reward you get from engaging in this behavior (even if it is very temporary). What are 1-3 things that you can do instead that will leave you with a similar reward? I encourage you to reflect on this and once you come up with a new routine that you believe would be something you could incorporate into your life. Try it for 1 week and see how you feel. Hopefully you will feel so awesome you will continue and make THAT your new habit!
In Balance & Strength,