Everything that you have done in your life up to now has trained your brain to respond in a certain way—these responses are our habits—the good, the bad and the ugly!
Want to retrain your brain?
You can do this by understanding your “habit loop”—the neurological pattern that your brain follows that perpetuates your behaviours. If you understand why you do what you do, then you can consciously maintain the habits you want, and replace unhelpful or destructive habits with new ones that improve your health and well-being.
The habit loop includes the cue, the routine and the reward. To change a habit, you have to identify the cues and rewards of your routine and then adjust one or more aspects of the habit loop.
Cues are the situations, objects, emotions, thoughts and behaviours that prompt us to do something e.g. feeling stressed, being with a particular person, a certain time of day, a location.
Routines are the behaviours you do in response to the cue or your habit e.g. eating when stressed, having a coffee first thing in the morning, going to the gym after work.
Rewards are what you gain from the behaviour, what makes you want to do it again e.g. relaxation, social outlet, endorphins, a treat you give yourself.
To break a bad habit, the only adjustment that is often needed is to replace the routine with another behaviour that gives you the same or similar reward. Sometimes it is also helpful to adjust your exposure to certain cues.
1. Habit you want to break: Texting while driving
Cue: hear phone vibrate
Routine: look at phone and text back
Reward: enjoy connecting with my friends
Adjustment: Focus on eliminating the cue to eliminate the behaviour. E.g. Put your phone on silent so you can’t hear texts come through or put your phone in the boot so you are not tempted to use it while driving.
2. Habit you want to break: Eating cake at night
Cues: nighttime, watching TV on the couch, having tea, with partner, see cake
Routine: eat cake or something sweet every night
Reward: tastes good, soothing
Adjustment: You can choose to change the cues e.g. not have tea, do not have sweets in the house, don’t watch TV. You can choose to change the routine to something that gives you a similar reward e.g. have a fruit salad, or a healthy smoothie, take a bath. And you can choose to give yourself a new reward for making changes to your routine.
If you want to form new habits, focus on creating new cues to trigger your behaviour and rewards when you accomplish your goal.
Habit you want to form: Go to spin class in the morning
Create a Habit loop
Cues: have gym clothes next to bed so you can see them when you wake up, text friend that you are going to the gym
Routine: go to spin class
Reward: feel good, massage, smoothie, go out for coffee with friend
Seems simple but can be very challenging!
Keep in mind that there is no magical timeline to creating new habits; it may take only a few weeks for some behaviours to become part of your routine and others may take a year to become ingrained. Also, it’s helpful to start with small changes and build upon these successes rather than become demoralised with failing to meet high expectations. Visualising success can also be a powerful tool that assists brain and behaviour changes. Finally, if you find the change just isn’t sticking, examine the habit loop again and try to figure out where things are breaking down—you may have missed something or you may need extra support to make the changes that you want.