Originally Posted on May 3, 2012 by Dr. Gail Feldman
Do you have the same kind of bagel or cereal for breakfast each morning, drive the same route to work every day, buy the same food at the market, attend the same yoga class every week? Good habits are a good thing. They’re automatic and, for the most part, unconscious. That’s why we develop them- to conserve cognitive energy to use for more important endeavors. We create habitual behaviors in order to not waste brain-time thinking about how and when to do them. Smart.
But, what about those other habits- the bad and the ugly? We eat the extra cookies or the bag of chips at the office. We find five other things to do instead of exercise. We drink that third martini even though we have an early morning meeting in six hours. We’ve developed these behaviors for slightly different reasons- they’re expedient (read impulse-driven) and we get pleasure from doing them. The cookies are THERE, after-all, and there really ARE other things that need our attention. The price we pay for sloth and overindulgence (our “bad habits”) takes a toll on our health and our self-esteem. The truly ugly habits are the ones that cross the line into addictions – compulsive spending and gambling; alcohol and drug overuse; over or under-eating. These can cost us our health and financial security, and also our jobs, family and friends.
The good news is in about habits: We are not defective characters. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells us that the brain is responsible. First, a “habit loop” is created. There’s a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. The cue is often a desire that we respond to with a routine. Then we are rewarded at the end of the routine by feeling better, richer, calmer- for a short time. Because soon the brain begins to crave the routine, with its specific reward. It’s the craving that drives our habits. We can blame a tiny ancient structure at the base of the brain- the basal ganglia – for our craving.
The really good news is that knowing about the “habit loop” means we can change our habits. First, choose a cue — a time to put the running shoes on, for example, and go to the gym. Two, choose a reward to anticipate. Three, practice the new routine. Before you know it, you’ve changed your behavior and changed your brain: Now, the craving is for the exercise, which is linked to that smoothie waiting for you at the end. The exciting part is the ripple effect that often follows after establishing one new healthy habit – once you do it in one area, you will likely begin to naturally alter habits in other areas of life, such as money, career and relationships. So while habits may seem mundane or simple, just one new one can have an ever-expanding impact on your life.