We are creatures of habit and are hardwired to build habits. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s easier to build bad habits than good ones. However, there is a way to use the brain’s reward system to help reduce bad habits and replace them with good ones.
Build a Habit: Cue, Routine, Reward
Using the Cue, Routine, Reward model is a way to train your mind and body to both be engaged with habit creation. The cue comes with an activity that you normally do anyway, but add a subtle change to it. For example, if you are trying to start exercising in the morning, place your workout clothes and shoes in the bathroom when you go to bed. Now, when you wake and go to the bathroom in the morning and brush your teeth, you now have the fitness cue right there to remind you. Do not underestimate the importance of the cue. Preparing the night before with a gentle nudge from you is very powerful. Just as the alarm is powerful to wake you out of a deep sleep, the cue can get you moving in the right direction or steer you back in the right direction.
The routine begins immediately. Put on your workout clothes and shoes and prepare for exercise with a light snack or drink and then begin. What is the routine you are starting? Starting to run again – start easily even if only for 10-15 minutes. The goal of building the habit requires you to do the routine at a certain time of the day regularly – daily if possible. Even if your days in between contain no running, go through the process of waking, putting on the clothes, get yourself ready to train and do something for 10 minutes (walk or stretch). After the routine, you can reward yourself. This may be an actual physical reward like a higher calorie breakfast, lunch, or dinner later in the day or something less tangible with the rush of adrenalin and endorphins from training. The feeling of being more awake, alert, and more productive starting your day is a great reward that often comes with an early wake-up and training session.
To form the habit, not only do you have to go through the movements of the above cycle day after day, but you also have to start receiving a neurological, hormonal, and physiological response to your new activity. Being able to feel the excitement of a new activity or know in deep within your core that the movement you are doing now will make you feel better than if you skipped the activity is key to building the habit. So, you build a “want” to do something because of how it makes you feel during and after.
Think of bad habits as replacing it with something else. For instance: Replace eating a sugary dessert after lunch or mid-day snack with another type of food or drink. Test out to see if you are just thirsty – drink water instead. Test to see if you just needed food and replace the sugar habit with a fruit habit (apple, banana, orange, grapes).
Replace any bad habit for your health with an opposite habit. If you notice these habits we have are usually associated with a particular time of the day, meal, or can even be part of the alone time or when with a group. These particular time and places trigger (or cue) these bad habits you are trying to eliminate. When you have that urge to start with the bad habit – stop at that moment and see if you are simply doing the opposite.
Replace sleeping extra with exercise first thing in the morning. The habit of sleeping may need some assistance the night before by going to bed earlier, not watching late night TV or other screen time to make it easier on yourself.
Bad Habits or Addictions
Regardless the habit changing is not an easy process and it requires work, but it is easier to change than an addiction. An addiction is not a habit, but yes habits can turn into addictions and addictions are much more difficult to break as it requires significant withdrawal reactions and emotional changes. A good way to describe the difference between a habit and an addition is that bad habits (not in moderation) are usually broken with the above methods explained. Often, addiction, whether it is substance, food, or other activities, can be life-threatening and requires delicate methods and training from professionals to assist with successful addiction transition.
If you think you might be addicted to something or some activity, please consider talking to a professional. Some references to read: Drug Abuse | Center on Addiction | SAMSA Hotline Related Articles and References: Habit Formation and Change