Realistic Lifestyle Change: How Habits are Made and Can be Re-made
Learn how to break habits before they break your lifestyle change goals.
In Good Habits, Bad Habits, Wendy Wood notes that roughly 43% of our actions are performed every day out of habit. Rather than thinking about everything we do daily, we live based on patterns we have set up on purpose or by accident. Recognizing the role habits play in our lives doesn't strip us of the ability to change. Habits are modifiable. You can lose ones you don't like and gain ones that you want, but the tricky part is how to do it on purpose.
HOW HABITS AFFECT THE BRAIN
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg tells a story about scientists researching how habits were formed in the brain of mice in the 1990s. The researchers placed a piece of chocolate at the end of a maze and measured the brain activity of mice as they performed the maze. As the mice performed the maze repeatedly and memorized it, their brain activity decreased. The mice had turned a sequence of actions into an automatic routine known as “chunking.” Chunking is excellent as it allows you to complete regular tasks without thinking like you would if I asked you to count backward from 100. Chunking is, in part, how we form a routine or a habit. If you had to think your way through every daily task, you would be so exhausted by breakfast you would need a nap.
KICK THE AUTOPILOT AND FLY LIKE A HELICOPTER PILOT WHEN IT COUNTS
Problems happen when old habits stand in the way of living your best life. The book, Rewire by Richard O’Connor addresses the difficulty of breaking habits within the brain. O’Connor discusses that we all have two ‘selves’ making our daily choices—a conscious self and an automatic self. The automatic self is the one that we have set up through our pattern of chunking. The automatic self acts without our direct control. It's what's influencing you when you mindlessly eat a bag of chips while watching Stranger Things. Your conscious self is responsible for self-control, choices, and deliberate focused attention. Your conscious self is the one that realizes you just ate half of the bag of chips, and you need to put the bag away before you eat the second half. The repeated pairing of something like vegging out on the couch after a hard day with a poor food choice is how cravings become a part of our lives. What you are doing is tying actions together in your brain. You feel crummy and want something that will make you happier, which means your brain will be looking for a quick dopamine release. Generally, the fastest way for us in modern-day western culture to get a quick dopamine hit is sugar. However, this method of getting a dopamine release reinforces the desire to continue making poor food choices on every bad or mediocre day. The trick to breaking a habit is finding out what your current habit gives you emotionally or subconsciously. Once you understand what you want, you can meet that desire another way and create a different routine for bad days.
The Pitch Perfect movie star, Rebel Willson can attest that creating a new routine can help someone stick with their desired change. In a recent interview, she stated that she worried about eating a gallon of ice cream in the evenings, which was her old habit before losing over 50 pounds last year. However, Wilson notes that she started going for a walk when she had free time. She substituted ice cream for walking to redirect her old habit. The new lifestyle habits she adopted last year have become ingrained. She created an automatic routine, retraining her brain. In the end, the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is simply not true. However, it will take breaking old patterns and understanding that it will take some failures along the way to get the new pattern established.
Action Step for Today: Write down a habit you would like to change and spend the next few days creating a different pattern. Have the habit of eating late at night? Try preparing a fruit platter nightly you can eat instead of eating something pre-packaged.
Looking Ahead: Next week, I will give an in-depth dive into cravings and how to redirect them, as resisting them is often a losing battle resulting in failures setting you back for weeks, months, or years.