We all have them – those habits that we know are bad for us but we just can’t seem to rid ourselves of them. We may first need to understand them, and then we will more than likely have the information we need to free ourselves from them.
Habits cultivate over time and may serve a purpose. They help us establish structure, norms and rules. For example, most people have a habit of bathing or showering once a day. We see the dentist twice a year to take care of our teeth. We have a habit of smiling and shaking hands when we meet someone new. A young person may hold open a door for an older person to show respect or to be courteous. There are, of course, bad habits we develop as well: smoking, biting our nails, eating junk food while watching television, eating dessert after (every!) dinner. Habits form so that our brains can ramp down more often by establishing routines for behaviors we do over and over. Our brains become more efficient because we no longer have to continue thinking about basic behaviors, and we, therefore, have more mental energy for bigger ideas, projects and tasks.
Habits form due to certain cues we associate with certain rewards. One example is having a difficult day where we worked hard, dealt with some challenges, engaged with some difficult people, and then think we “deserve” a reward. The whole point of the reward is to feel pleasure since it has been such a trying day. So, we establish a routine where at the end of a hard day, we get pleasure from a bowl of ice cream or one of those specialty cupcakes with the chocolate mousse in the middle or a couple of glasses of wine. Sure, we “deserve” this treat as it gives us pleasure, but are we truly rewarding ourselves when the numbers on the scale go up or our pants get tight and uncomfortable? The simple answer is “no.” So, what do we do to break this “reward” habit? It is simpler than we think.
First, it is important to understand the “habit loop.” Charles Duhigg has written an excellent book entitled, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” He has studied the research on habits and has found that there is a cycle to our repetitive, “bad-for-us” behaviors. Following is a representation of this:
This loop is repeated when the cue occurs again. What we need to do when we get that cue is realize the type of reward we are seeking. Cue: It is been a bad day! Reward sought: A sense of pleasure and ‘treat” for getting through that day. Routine: Instead of heading towards the pantry, the refrigerator or the cupcake shop (which just so happens to be on the way home), try a different reward that is good for the mind, body and soul. Consider going for a walk or a bike ride and enjoying the outdoors while feeling good about moving the body. A hot bath with candles and soothing music may be relaxing. Call a friend and, instead of focusing on what went bad with the day, talk to the friend about his or her life. Sit outside on a porch or deck and read a good book. Take up a hobby to use as a pleasurable activity such as painting, dancing, or playing a musical instrument.
There are always better habits to develop. Thinking about how the habits we have impact us, and choosing just one that we want to change is the first step to breaking a bad habit. When we realize the cue that triggers the habit, interrupt the routine, and find a healthier way to reward ourselves, we are on our way to better choices and a healthier life!