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Creating Healthy Habits That Last

February 1, 2021

Creating Healthy Habits That Last

A landmark 1988 study out of University of Scranton found that while 77 percent of people who committed to a New Year’s resolution stuck to it for a week, only 40 percent sustained that behavior past six months. This research suggests motivation alone is not enough to create lasting behavior change. But what separates the 40 percent of people who keep their New Year's resolutions from the 60 percent who don’t? Keep reading to learn how you can harness the science of habit formation to creating lasting lifestyle changes.

 

Science Behind Habits

The first step to changing your habits is to understand why and how said behavior occurs. All habits consist of four main components: cue, craving, response and reward. Best described as a feedback loop, these components form an endless cycle of behavior that exist as long you are alive.

The cue is what triggers your brain to initiate a specific behavior. Habitual cues could be a location, time, emotional state, other people or an immediately preceding action. For example, if the first thing you do when you wake up is brush your teeth, the cue could be the sound of your alarm, time of day or being in your bathroom (more on isolating cues to impact behavior change later).

Cues naturally lead to cravings, the motivational force behind every habit. Cravings are a powerful desire to change your current state of being. Without the desire to change, your mind has no reason to act. Using the previous example of a morning routine, your behavior is not motivated by the act of brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth.

The response is the actual behavior caried out, which can take the form of a thought or an action. This is followed immediately by the reward, or the end goal of every habit. While rewards can have long-term benefits, the immediate impact of satisfying the craving is what reinforces the habit overtime.

Essentially, a cue activates a craving, which motivates a response, which leads to a reward, which is then associated with a cue. When a habit is formed, the prefrontal cortex (decision-making part of your brain) gives over control to the basal ganglia. While habits may begin as a conscious decision, they are reinforced overtime through ritual and eventually become automatic behaviors.

 

How to Change Your Ways

In theory, habits are neither good nor bad. They are simply a process created by the brain to assist us in functioning more effectively and efficiently. Research shows that 45 percent of all daily activity is completed out of habit. Without habit formation, our minds would be overloaded with stimuli and decisions. The ‘habit loop’ within your brain is constantly scanning your environment for cues, working to predict what will happen next, trying out different responses and learning from the results. A study done by MIT discovered that habit formation creates such strong neurological pathways in your brain, they are nearly impossible to forget. Lead researcher Ann Graybiel says, “We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned, but it is startling to find that these patterns reverse when the habit is lost, only to recur again as soon as something kicks off the habit again.”

Research suggests the trick to creating new, lasting habits is just to change your current ones. So how do you ‘hack’ your habit loop? While various behavioral scientists, self-help authors and health coaches all have different names for their theories, one common theme is clear: mindfulness. Once you understand the components (cue, craving, response, reward) of your habits, the key to changing your behavior is to mindfully notice, assess, adjust and then act. Below are a few tips for taking a more mindful approach to changing your ways:

  • Isolate the Cue – As previously mentioned, there could be several triggers associated with a specific behavior. Start to track what occurs right before the undesired behavior occurs. Where are you? What are your surroundings? How do you feel? Building awareness of this pattern will allow you to actively choose how you want to respond or how you might adjust your own habit loop.
  • Recognize the Reward – Avoid looking for the easy answer. Is your afternoon snack break just because you are hungry, or more about giving yourself a mental break? Recognizing what you are truly craving will allow you to find alternative behaviors that lead to similar rewards.
  • Ritualize Your RoutineSlow down and become more deliberate with all components of your habit. Want to start running in the morning? Intentionally provide yourself with several cues to trigger this new behavior (lay your gym clothes out night before, play the same pre-run song to hype you up, find an accountability partner). While neurology ultimately decides which cue sticks, bringing new focus to your daily routine can help you fast-track this process, celebrate the small wins and stay connected to your larger goal.
  • Create Tiny Habits – If a behavior is easy, you won’t need as much motivation to do it. Break your big goal into small, tiny habits. Want to do 30-minutes of activity every day? Start by doing just 3-5 minutes of movement at a time. Because we know how tough it can be to create new habits, try putting the behavior after or in place of an existing routine (after I refill my coffee, I will do 15 bodyweight squats). And don’t forget to reinforce the ‘reward’ by celebrating your completion of the new tiny habit each time!
  • Accommodate for Cravings It’s not a matter of if, but when you will be tempted by cravings. While some believe willpower to be just a personality trait, others suggest it operates more like a muscle. This means it can be fatigued, but also strengthened over time. If your mind is already tired from a long day of, it will be harder to make mindful choices about your behavior. Find ways to reduce exposure to unhelpful triggers and have a plan for how you will allow yourself to give way to comfortable habits from time to time.
  • Create Habits on Your Own Terms – Most importantly, ask yourself why you want to change this specific habit. What is the driving force behind your desire for change? You will be more successful in your efforts if they are directly tied to your values and your beliefs, specifically in your ability to succeed. It may sound cliché, but if you do not believe you can do it, chances are you won’t. 

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes, “All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.” By just reading this article, you are already one small step closer to creating healthy, lasting habits! For more guidance on how you can live your best life in motion, view all of our available Fitness Programs and Services here.  

 

Sources:

The Science of Actually Keeping Your New Year's Resolutions

The Power of Habit: How Habits Work

The Good Life Project Podcast with Charles Duhigg: The Power Of Habit  

How to Start New Habits That Actually Stick

Brain Researchers Explain Why Old Habits Die Hard

How I Cracked the Code for Creating Habits