Updated: Sep 6
Understanding how our brains form habits, and learning how to create new healthy habit that will stick.
All habits exist to solve a problem.
We are either trying to run away from something (chronic disease, joint and muscle pain, becoming overweight, emotional or binge eating or addictions) or trying to run towards something (more energy, stamina, better fitness, improved sleep, heart health, body weight, self confidence).
But how are habits established?
Enter: the habit loop. This is the cycle our brains run through when performing a habit from start to finish.
It begins with a cue-a signal to our brains that will cause us to behave based on a reward we anticipate.
It could be the smell of fresh coffee that leads you to pour a cup or the feeling after eating dinner that makes you want to brush your teeth.
This cue then leads us to have a craving. We suddenly desire that coffee, or the feeling of a fresh minty mouth.
Then comes the action step: the response. The response is the tangible action we do to move toward the reward we are craving. We physically get a cup and pour coffee and drink it, or put toothpaste on our brush and start brushing.
Lastly, the reward. This is what seals the deal: effectively the most important part of the process because it solidifies what we anticipated to be true-some type of benefit from going through those steps. Enjoying the flavor of the coffee or the way it wakes us up; enjoying the feeling and taste of fresh breath. The reward is all about enjoyment and pleasure-even if it short-lived.
Understanding this process is crucial for many reasons.
First, it allows us to reflect on the habits that already exist in our lives and figure out WHY they are there-discover what problem they are trying to solve.
It also allows us to view ourselves objectively without criticism and realize that even if they aren’t truly benefiting us, at least we can see it’s our body and brain’s way of trying to solve things.
Next, it allows us to adjust our lifestyle to build in new, healthier alternatives to these habits.
Example: Perhaps we smoke or eat or bite our nails to alleviate stress. and it's an automatic response that we have built over time and with repetition. We don't question it, and may not even realize we are doing it half the time, but it does temporarily numb those uncomfortable feelings or distract us from those overwhelming thoughts. This is our own way of balancing our body in a state of heightened stress. In order to achieve homeostasis (where all our systems are in a state of calm and balance) we must act. This is just one of the ways we chose to do it.
When we step back and look at the habit, we can address the actual problem we are trying to solve in a healthier, more beneficial way. Maybe we choose to call a friend, get outside in the fresh air, or play with a pet when we notice stress rising.
But how do we get started?
When we are trying to carve out a new habit in our lives, we will benefit in the beginning by creating cues to remind us to do it. This is basically taking the brain work out of it so you don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel Every. Single. Day.
A simple way to start may be setting your phone alarm for the same time every day to drink a glass of water before lunch.
Or to floss your teeth after dinner. Or to journal for 5 minutes before bed. Whatever the habit is you would like to begin.
Setting up reminders with alarms, sticky notes, notifications, etc will help cue your brain to get started. Then, you will be thinking of that thing and the craving can set in. Just like if you see a food commercial and then suddenly find yourself wanting french fries for the next hour…Get the thought on your brain so it can start simmering.
Habit stacking is shortcutting the work in our brains by piggybacking on an existing habit you already have to establish a new one. For instance, if you want to start drinking tea after dinner instead of eating ice cream, you could begin by getting a mug and tea bag out while cooking, and then turning the kettle on when you sit down to eat. Do this day after day, and it makes drinking tea as easy as just pouring water in a mug that's already hot and prepared.
What About Motivation?
In the beginning phases of establishing a new habit, it’s about trust. Trusting yourself that you are doing something positive and worthwhile, and trusting that you will start to feel and see and experience the rewards, the more you do it. You have to stick with it to prove it to yourself, so don’t give up at the start.
Desiring to respond to that craving may take a bit more work in the beginning, and you may not feel like doing it until you have experienced that reward at least once or twice. Once you experience it consistently, your brain will remember the enjoyment/benefit that it brings.
Like the high you get after a workout, when your energy is buzzing, your mood is level and you feel like you can tackle the day, that reward will keep you coming back for more and more. At that point, it’s about so much more than doing what you think you “should” do. A deep desire for health is taking root and affecting not only your body, but your mind and your identity.
As you consistently experience that pleasure from whatever it is-eating better, hydrating, going for a daily walk, winding down with meditation or journaling, etc, you will actually strengthen that habit loop as you create a new neuropathway in your brain. You are literally carving a new pathway in your brain which will remember-doing this thing feels great, make me more alive, make me healthier. In essence, you are taking away the need for motivation by training your brain to get the right kinds of rewards.
The beautiful thing about us humans is that our brains have neuroplasticity-we are not a one-and-done deal. We can CHANGE the way we think, which will in turn, change the way we live. When pathways are not continually practiced, they die out. When new pathways are, they strengthen. Isn’t that exciting?
If you substitute an unhelpful habit with something new that can satisfy that reward you seek in a better way, and you continue to practice that, eventually your brain will let the old thing die down, until you barely know it is there. You may notice a cue to do that action, and feel no real pull to listen, and that is when you know you have really made some progress!