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How to make and break habits for good
I have had to break a lot of habits. I have quit sugar, quit soda, quit smoking, quit drinking, and quit coffee all at some point in my health journey. For all of them, it was always this frustrating roller coaster of quit, restart, quit restart, until months and sometimes years later I finally got it down. If I knew then what I am about to tell you about how our brains make and break habits, I have no doubt I would have been much more successful much faster!
In The Power of Habit by Charles Dunigg, the way our brains make and break habits is outlined based upon scientific research. Breaking old habits and forming new habits can be very frustrating, especially if we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves (and our brains). Much of succeeding with health goals isn’t really about our willpower or about our desires, but rather come down to the way our brains are wired.
Some things about your brain
Here are some things about your brain and habits to keep in mind as you start on your health journey:
- Brains ALWAYS choose old, well-formed habits over creating new habits. This is out of your control and is based on evolutionary adaptation to surviving. When your brain is in a habit loop, all the rest of your brain gets to shut down and go on autopilot. Your brain prefers this because it uses less energy and resources, preserving resources for survival.
- Your brain goes into a habit loop based upon an initial trigger. Once your brain is triggered, you will get a craving that won’t go away until the action (the habit) is completed and the reward you are craving is obtained. Being aware of this trigger–>craving–>habit–>reward pathway is the key to decreasing old habits and forming new habits.
- Willpower is finite. Usually we think that if just had enough will power we could achieve our goals, end our old bad habits, and start our new good habits with ease and grace. This just isn’t true. There are times of the day when we have more willpower, and the more tired and stressed we are our willpower bank gets emptier and emptier. Knowing ourselves, our limits, our daily structures, and planning for stressful days and events can help us manipulate our world at the right times, when our willpower bank is full. Knowing that this is true for every human can also give us grace for when our willpower runs out, our strength is gone, and our brain chooses our old habit loops over the energy-draining process of forming our new habits.
- It takes energy and nutrients to create the neural pathways for our new habits. Sleep and food is essential. It doesn’t make sense to try and make a new habit when we are in a depleted state. Prioritizing sleep and adding nutrient-dense foods should be first before we tackle any new habit formation.
BREAKING AN OLD HABIT
So now that we know a little more about how our brain acts about habits, the pathway of habitual actions, and the requirements for and limits of our bodies, let’s talk about some steps you can take to approach breaking an old habit.
- Research: You might think that quitting a bad habit should be the first step, but really, researching and understanding the bad habit is the first step. Recall the pathway to a habit is a trigger–>craving–>habit–>reward . To understand your habit and how to break you, you need to first research what your triggers are and what the reward is that you are getting from satisfying your craving with the habit. For example, if you always leave your desk at 3pm to go to the lounge to eat a cookie, what is your trigger? Is your trigger the time? Boredom? Loneliness? Hunger? Stress? And what is your reward? Is it a feeling of fullness? A break in boredom? Social connection? Relaxation?
- Experiment: You might wonder how will you know what your triggers and rewards are. You will have to experiment. Try going to get a cookie at 1pm instead of 3pm. Was your craving satisfied? Try eating an apple at 3pm instead of a cookie. Was your craving satisfied. Try taking a walk to relieve stress and boredom. Was your craving satisfied? By manipulating each possible trigger and reward with a replacement, you will learn more about how to properly replace this current habit with a healthier one.
- Remove: If you can, remove the triggers from your life (if you have a sugar addiction, you don’t want a pantry full of Oreo’s to constantly be tugging at your willpower all day). If your route home triggers you to stop on Sonic (a’hem), try taking a different route. You might need to learn stress relief strategies, self-care strategies, emotion management, or problem solving skills if your triggers are emotional, stress, or relationship related. Getting to the root of those triggers that you CAN remove and eliminate are a great step towards sustainable habit changing.
- Replace: Once you can pinpoint the actual trigger and the actual reward, then you can replace the action for that trigger and reward with something healthier that still satisfies the craving. This approach is much more sustainable, albeit slower, than cold-turkey quitting an old habit. However, the time and patience is worth it to finally kick that old habit once and for all.
FORMING A NEW HABIT
So what about forming a new habit? While the pathway is the same, the strategy is a little different. In breaking an old habit, the neural pathways are already there and we are just working with them to tweak them a bit to make those pathways work for us. But forming a new habit (like adding exercise, adding a new meal, adding water, etc.) requires new neural pathways. Recall that these pathways work in this order: trigger–>craving–>habit–>reward.
- Create a repeated trigger: In this case, you will need to fast-track your brain into forming a new habit by using the same trigger every time. For example, if you want to remember to take supplements every day, the trigger can be a picture of the supplements on your pantry door. Or if you want to add a walk to your afternoon energy slump time, leaving your tennis shoes by the office door each day will trigger your memory. Doing your new habit at the same time in the same place using the same trigger every day will fast track your brain into moving that activity into its preferred “habit loop” pathways.
- Create a reward: You will now need to match the trigger and the action (the desired habit) following the trigger to a reward. This reward needs to be short term and immediate. While your long-term goal (reducing blood sugar values, for example) will give you motivation to keep going on hard days, your habit reward needs to happen as soon as the habit is completed. Think sticker charts! This can be scratching an item off your to-do list if you are list-motivated. This can be journaling how you feel immediately after eating that new food and or that new walk to connect your endorphins or energy levels to your new habit. This can just acknowledging out loud how accomplished you feel (accomplishments also release endorphins) from sticking to your goal. The point is to match a positive reward to the action that was taken because of a trigger. Eventually, after enough times, your brain will start to have a craving when it sees the trigger that led to this reward, encouraging you do complete that good habit to satisfy that craving!
PLAN FOR FAILURE
As I mentioned, we have limited willpower and busy lives. We are not ever going to do anything perfectly, and that is ok. But we can plan for our busy days, our lack of willpower, and our fall-backs to minimize the impact of those fall-backs and to get right back up as quickly as we can. There are a few helpful strategies here to help you be as successful as possible at reaching your goals.
- Prepare during times of low stress and greatest willpower. What is the least stressful time of your day and day of your week? These will be the times when you do your prep work to create the environment needed for you to succeed during the other stressful times. For example, if Sundays are your least stressful days, batch cook your meals and store them in your fridge for the rest of the stressful week. If evenings are your slowest times of your day, prepare for the next day by packing your lunch, getting your walking shoes by the door, and setting out your supplements for the next day so that all of your triggers are ready without you even having to think about it when are stressed and exhausted and your willpower is gone.
- Know that there will be difficult times, expect them, and have a game plan. There will be times when you fall back on your old habits, when you skip your good habits, or when you down right go rogue on your goals. This is normal. The important thing is to get back up as quickly as possible.
- One way to plan for this is through visualization. If you visualize all of your possible worst case scenarios and imagine yourself succeeding and responding well during those scenarios, your brain will actually create the neural pathways to be prepared for these situations. Envision your worst day, your worst fall, the most stressful event, and see yourself responding the way you want to respond. Do this visualization repeatedly, as much as possible, so that when these events happen your neural pathways are ready.
- Remember, every day, every minute, every second is a new chance to start over and get right back on track.
- Don’t forget to use falls as research: what triggered that fall that you can change and prepare for next time? How can you prevent the fall? How can you bounce back faster? Falls are always learning experiences to value if you view them in this light.
- Don’t forget to remind yourself of your big-picture goals and values for why you decided to break this habit or form this new habit. When we get tired and exhausted, we forget why wanted long, sustainable health in the first place. Remind yourself every morning of the big picture and of your values. This can be a quote or picture by your bed, on your mirror, or in your kitchen to serve as a gentle reminder of why you are doing all of this work in the first place.
- This same kind of preparation and visualization can be done for unique situations, like holidays, parties, and evenings at others’ houses. You can prepare and visualize ahead of time, take healthy choices with you, eat ahead of time, and visualize yourself saying “yes” to the choices that align with your goals.
Don’t forget to hold on to hope. Change is hard, even good change, and sometimes our goals can feel light years away. Believing that you can do it, that it is worth, is just as important as all of the research and planning. You were meant to feel great!!!
Make sure you don’t miss my next blog post series on how to balance your hormones!
I make your health my priority so you can make your dreams your priority!
Lori Valentine Rose, PhD, CNP, BCHN, RH (AHG) is a college biology, nutrition, herbal, and wellness instructor, board certified nutrition professional and holistic nutrition consultant, registered herbalist, wife, mother, organic vegetable, fruit, and medicinal herb gardener, school garden planter, city class teacher, and passionate Zumba dancer! She created, developed, and instructs the Hill College Holistic Wellness Pathway, the most thorough, affordable, degreed wellness program in the country. She also has a video podcast here where she interviews people that have helped her truly embrace real mind-body-spirit holistic wellness. She loves spreading love and light, and helping others feel awesome on the inside and out so they can live their dreams and make this world more awesome! Lori Rose Holistic does not replace medical advice or working with your doctor, and she does not diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Her goal is to educate, and any actions you take are voluntary and of your own free will.
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