Lifestyle Changes and the Power of Habit Formation

The alarm sounds. One leg is heavy after the other, but slowly we sit up, rub our eyes hard, and get out of bed. We may sit there… pondering the unfairness of needing to get up on such a beautiful day, and go to school, or to work. Instead, we go through the motions (we shower, brush our hair, teeth, etc.), and we go. These are the rituals of millions of people all over the world. Rituals we may be doing since childhood; rituals that are still hard to do, but we still do them. What keeps us doing them?

The answer is habit formation. Habit formation is essentially when we have certain routines which we do repetitively, in such a way, that the brain ends up programming itself to perform them without exerting additional computational power – we don’t need much thought to do them, and they run like a background program in our minds. An example of this is driving. All of us can drive the simple route from home to workplace without having to think much about the turns we make, or pay as much attention as if we were new drivers. The task is practically second nature to us. It is no longer intimidating.

The brain accomplishes this by creating certain wired pathways. When we develop a bad habit, it’s much the same. Perhaps we’ve had a bad day, and mother always gave us a treat when we were sad; so now we always have a treat when we’re sad. We may end up attaching an emotion or a reward to a habit, and don’t think much about it anymore. These wired pathways don’t die out – but we can make them irrelevant to the brain by creating new pathways through new habit formation… and this new habit formation is the key to lasting lifestyle change, as it creates permanency.

So how do we go about reprogramming our minds? There are many ideas, of which two come to mind: just doing it – trudging through the task, day in and day out, until we’re just used to it; or attaching a new reward to the habit.

Just Doing It

The key to being successful at this approach is to use baby steps. For example, a person looking to quit smoking might want to consider slowly reducing the amount of cigarettes smoked per day, rather than quitting completely cold turkey.

As a personal example, my husband used to smoke regularly. Slowly, he took steps to minimize the occasions in which he could have a cigarette – knowing that I could walk with him to the gas station at 3 or 4 in the morning, if he really needed to have the ONE single cigar, for comfort. Soon enough, the drudgery of getting up at that hour was much larger than the desire to want the one cigar, so he completely stopped. (It also helps that winters in my part of the country are pretty awful.)

Attaching a Reward to the Habit

Attaching a reward to a habit is when we pin a good thing we enjoy onto something we don’t enjoy as much, as a motivator for us to keep going. Examples of this can be allowing oneself to read a good book, watching an hour of a favorite TV show, or having a cup of coffee at a favorite café if we’ll stick to the workout routine for that day, or to our good eating habits, or to taking our medication, etc.

Personally, this one is a tricky approach for me. But… if I focus on a sense of accomplishment from having just done the one small thing, like adding a veggie to a meal, then that’s a victory for me. It can be a goal I set for myself – or a challenge. “Can I have one veggie serving in every meal, without breaking the chain?” Even if I don’t make many good choices, AND still have a veggie – I have successfully incorporated a food, and a bay step of change.

A Combination of the Two

Likely a combination of these two approaches will work the best for us – no single approach is perfect at helping us focus onto creating the new habit, but the idea is to break a mental signature and to create a new and healthier one, through some consistency. This helps us create lasting change which goes beyond merely following a set of rules and regulations (especially, since they usually end up broken 6 months down the road.)

When we work with ways to reprogram ourselves, we can begin this new journey of the ‘healthy lifestyle’ with the confidence that we really can succeed… because it’ll be a ‘no brainer.’

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