Are You a Creature of Habit?

You come home after work. As you’re changing out of your work attire, you see your running shoes under your bed and think, “I should go for a run.” After going through a checklist of other things you meant to do that evening, you decide you have time for a quick jog. Now consider another scenario: You come home after work and see your shoes under your bed. Without thinking, you shed your work attire, strap on your running shoes and head out the door for a jog. In both cases, you’ve done something healthy. But only one of those scenarios involved a decision.

The Unconscious Art of Habit Formation

A habit is any automatic pattern of thought or behavior. In other words, a habit is anything you do without making a conscious decision. In the first scenario above, you decided to go running, but in the second scenario you just did it without thinking.

Behavioral experts point to three stages of a habit. The first stage is a “contextual cue” — something in your environment that triggers an automatic response like wanting to go for a run because you saw your running shoes. The second stage is executing that automatic response — in this case, actually going out to run. The third stage is receiving the reward associated with completing that action — such as feeling healthier or losing weight.

As human beings, we’re wired to form habits, and we do this completely unconsciously most of the time. Turning an action into a habit is a mental feat known as ‘automaticity,’ and we get into trouble when our brains achieve this automaticity in relation to unhealthy thoughts and actions, such as negative thinking, stress smoking or binge snacking.

Challenging Yourself to Change

The question is: How do you quit bad habits and form new, healthy habits? The key is to make your brain’s tendency to form habits work in your favor. Here are a few ways to accomplish long-lasting behavioral changes:

  • Identify contextual cues. Do you grab that bag of potato chips every time you sit down to watch television? Do you have a smoke whenever you get in your car after work? Removing the cues (i.e. taking cigarettes out of your car) can help you avoid those automatic actions.
  • Create new contextual cues. Place your running shoes by the front door before you go to work in the morning. You’ll be reminded to go for a run when you get home. Eventually, you won’t have to put your shoes there — simply coming home will be the cue that it’s time to run.
  • Think small. Being too ambitious can cause you to give up before a habit is formed. Instead of resolving to go to the gym every night, start by doing 10 push-ups after dinner. Once the action becomes automatic, gradually increase the time and intensity of it.
  • Attach new habits to existing ones. A great example of this is flossing after you brush your teeth. A study of habit formation published in May 2013 in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that subjects who flossed after brushing their teeth were more likely to keep it up after eight months.
  • Stick with it. It’s a common myth that it takes three weeks to form a new habit. In fact, a 2009 study of 96 participants found that forming a new habit took anywhere from 18 to 254 days.

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