When I was riding the trains in Europe last year I went through a number of audiobooks, one being The Power of Habit, an interesting look at why we do what we do.
I’m not going to give you a book report here, but if you’re interested, you can listen to the author’s 38-minute interview on NPR. Fascinating stuff, and an important touchstone for many of the other tips I’ll share over the next few weeks.
For the purpose of this series, let’s focus on three points.
1) Habits form in a different part of the brain (basal ganglia) then our decision-making part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex). Once a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of the brain goes into a kind of sleep mode and the habit part of the brain takes over.
This is great! Because our brains are set-up this way, we can think about our next vacation, our to-do lists, the cute girl from last night or whatever while we’re brushing our teeth, getting dressed, driving to work, etc.
This is also terrible! Have you ever pounded a whole bag of Doritos while watching a movie? How about a late-night stop at the drive-thru after a night out when you’re not even hungry?
After enough evenings looking for late night food in college, or enjoying snacks while watching a movie, the behaviors became triggers. Without thinking about it, I’d start a movie and go to the pantry to grab a bag of chips, even if I had just eaten dinner. The moment I’d leave the bar on a Friday night, I was already headed to McDonald’s even if it was out of the way. At times, I can remember thinking to myself “What are you doing? You’re not even hungry!”
What I was doing was acting on auto-pilot because it’s how my brain was trained to behave. Upon learning that this was what was happening, I felt a bit more empowered to allow my pre-frontal cortex to jump in and and overrule the basal ganglia. I could at least think about whether or not I was actually hungry before heading to Mickey D’s, identify the habit trying to take over and shut it down.
But some habits are much harder to break.
2) Habits are made up of a three-piece loop. The cue (or trigger), the routine, and the reward. If you can identify the cue and the reward, you can alter the routine.
My absolute worst habit when it came to my obesity was the late night raid of my parents’ refrigerator. It went on for at least 25 years. I may only be home for a week every year, but as soon as my folks went to bed, I’d be in the kitchen grabbing leftovers, chips, cookies…whatever. I might snack and watch TV for two hours. Honestly, I can’t ever remember being hungry for any of it, but once I learned that it was a habit controlling the action, I decided to try and put a stop to it on my trip home last Christmas.
I already knew what the cue was: my parents going to bed. That was easy. But what about the reward? I’ve never been short on food and have always had a TV around so it wasn’t that. I never felt good after eating all that junk so it wasn’t a physical reward. Some nights I may have come home after having alcohol so my will power was down, but that was when I was in high school and college. How would that explain the last 15 years?
Then I remembered when I was 9 or 10 years old, my brother and I (sorry to drag you into this, Adam) would sneak downstairs after our folks had gone to bed to watch television. Adam abandoned that quickly, but I didn’t. I was getting away with something! Eventually I started to grab food out of the kitchen to enjoy while I “illegally” watched TV, then I’d quietly sneak back to bed satisfied that I had pulled one over on Mom and Dad. I’ve always been independent so I’m sure as a child I hated the idea of being told when to go to bed, and I guess that secret act of defiance was exhilarating.
Sad as it seems, I was still enjoying that reward, even though by age 39 I was certainly allowed to stay up late and eat whatever I wanted. Not only that, but my parents had known for years that I would snack after they went to bed and I knew they knew, so I was no longer getting away with anything. I just hadn’t ever shut down the habit.
I broke the habit by going to bed when my parents went to bed…maybe even before. If I beat them to bed then the cue was eliminated. As for the reward, I felt so silly realizing what was going on that I sort of embarrassed myself out of enjoying it. Feel free to laugh at that. I do.
3) You can create new habits…how long it takes is likely up to you.
This is a point I’ve been a fan of long before reading The Power of Habit, but unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer about how it’s done.
Stick “How do I create a new habit” into Google and see how many different answers you get. For years, the standard was 21 days, but modern science disputes that. I’ve seen spreads that go from 18 to 254 days. In my personal experience, the only thing I can say for certain is this:
Bad habits take the autobahn to my basal ganglia, good habits prefer the scenic route, but they do eventually get there.
I could make a daily trip to McDonald’s automatic in a few days, flossing my teeth after brushing may take several weeks, making exercise a daily routine took months. However, they will all become habits. If I do go to McDonald’s one day (and I do!), I’m not going again for at least a week. Or a month. It’s just not worth the risk of a bad habit forming that I’ll have to struggle with breaking.
Forming the good habits means tapping into that resolve I discussed in the first post. The newness makes healthy routines easy at first, then I know I’m going to hit a rough patch a few weeks in. However, if I can make it through that, I know I’ll form the good habit. Once that happens, the good habits are almost as hard to break as the bad ones.
Now that we’ve covered resolve and good habit formation, we’re ready to talk about what those good habits are and how they’re helping me achieve a healthy lifestyle.
Author’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories I’m writing about healthy living as I prepare for my first 150-mile fundraising bike ride in support of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. To learn more about the ride or support my fundraising effort with a donation, click here.