Did you make a New Year’s resolution? More importantly, did you stick with it? If you’re like most people, your bad habits are back. And your resolutions? Well, better luck next year.
The concept of falling into bad habits is common. And before you kick yourself for it, know this: it’s not an indication of failure. Instead, it’s science.
“Your brain is wired to have two sides: emotional and logical,” says Olga Hays, an American Council on Exercise-certified wellness promotion specialist at Sharp HealthCare. “The logical side helps us make quick decisions. But it’s often overshadowed by the emotional side — the willful habit-former that loves to tell the logical side what to do.”
The emotional side of your brain tells you to drink that morning coffee, or smoke that afternoon cigarette, or eat that after-dinner dessert. It is conditioned to remember how certain things make you feel. And if it remembers how great that dessert tastes, it works hard to bring back that feeling.
Breaking negative habits is not easy, but it is not impossible. “No matter how big or small the habit, it’s a matter of retraining your brain,” says Hays. Understanding the psychology of habit formation can help us do that.
Psychology of habits
Each habit we have follows the same three-step formation loop: a cue, a routine and a reward. This is called the habit loop.
- A cue is what triggers your behavior.
- A routine is the behavior itself.
- A reward is the benefit associated with the behavior.
Every time you repeat this three-step behavioral pattern, it becomes more and more wired in your brain until it eventually becomes automatic — a habit. Hays says, “We cannot completely eradicate our bad habits. But we can override them with better ones. Being aware of the habit loop and its components can help us do that.”
Step 1: Identify your routine. This is the behavior you want to change, the bad habit you want to break. It could be biting your nails, watching TV after dinner or reaching for a cookie at 3 pm.
Step 2: Identify your cue. Your cue is a behavior or routine that will trigger your new habit. If your sugar craving appears like clockwork, your cue is time — 3 pm each day. Cues could also be emotional (boredom, stress) or environmental (being at a certain place, such as in a car or the kitchen).
Step 3: Isolate your reward. A reward is the benefit associated with the behavior, the reason you are motivated to do the habit (sweet taste of a cookie, temporary stress relief, entertainment, etc.). The reward leads to powerful cravings that force you to perform the behavior repeatedly.
How to change
To change a habit, find a way to keep the old cue and the old reward, but insert a different routine. By adding a new behavior, but keeping the old cue and old reward, you are minimizing the amount of energy your brain needs to power your new habit because you are not breaking the habit loop pattern.
In the case of a cookie at 3 pm, replace the cookie with a healthier snack alternative to satisfy your sweet craving, like an apple or a fruit juice ice pop. Or try to replace the cookie with an activity, such as a walk around the building or chatting with colleagues for a few minutes.
You may need to experiment with your rewards to find out what drives your habit. But in the end, you may be surprised to find out that your craving for a cookie disappears after a walk outside. It means that your cookie habit was not driven by a craving for sugar at all. Instead, it is motivated by a different reward, like a quick energy boost.
Changing habits is not an easy task, and it takes a lot of patience as you experiment with your cues, routines and rewards. However, the above framework is a good place to start because understanding how habits operate gives you the power to change them.