As humans, we’re all creatures of habit. Our brains are lazy, they’re always trying to find ways to save energy.
One of the biggest ways our brains save energy is to develop everything it can into a semi conscious habit.
It does this by ‘chunking’ things into routines. Cleaning your teeth, driving a car, getting dressed in the morning are all examples of routines you don’t have to think much about.
You don’t have to take time remembering that the toothpaste goes on the toothbrush before it goes in your mouth or that your underwear goes on before your trousers (unless you’re Superman) and we’ve all been driving along and questioned how we suddenly got this far down the road without realising.
Our brains number one priority is survival. The benefit of creating routines is it saves us a LOT of thinking and therefore preserves energy. The more energy we have, the more likely we are to survive.
How does this link to health?
I’m glad you asked.
Unfortunately as well as developing good habits and routines, we also develop bad ones.
A glass of wine on an evening or a sugary snack in the afternoon are common examples.
So how do we stop bad habits? The truth is you can’t. It’s been shown that once a habit has developed (good or bad), it's stuck in your brain forever.
It’s not all bad news though. We might not be able to stop bad habits but we can CHANGE them.
Habits are made up of three things.
A habit most people can relate to is opening the fridge every time you walk in to the kitchen. In this example the cue could be boredom (1), the routine is opening the fridge and grabbing a snack (2) and the reward is the taste when eating something (3).
Another example… eating a chocolate bar every afternoon. The cue could range from the place you’re in to the time of day to hunger to almost anything (1), it really depends on you. The routine is eating the chocolate bar (2) and the reward is the taste and hit of sugar (3).
There are four steps to changing a habit.
Step one = Identify the cue(s).
Step two = Figure out what the reward is
Step three = Come up with a new routine that still gives you the reward.
Step four = Practise the new routine until it becomes automatic.
Let’s look at the fridge habit. The cue could be as simple as walking in to the kitchen or it could be boredom or hunger. For this example, we’ll use boredom.
The reward is we have something to do and we’re no longer bored.
All we need to do now is figure out a new routine that still gets rid of our boredom. Something along the lines of reading a book, playing a game, going for a run.
The final step is to practise the new routine. Every time you see the cue (boredom), you run the new routine.
If you’re skeptical about whether this would work for changing your fridge habit, it probably means your cue and reward for opening the fridge are different. You’ll need to figure those out for yourself before coming up with a new routine.
Now let’s do the chocolate bar example and let’s say the cue is hunger. The reward then becomes obvious, we’re satisfied and no longer hungry. All we need to do is come up with a new routine that also satisfies our hunger without the sugar overload of the chocolate, however we also need to bear in mind that the sugar rush is probably part of the reward.
What we could do is simply change the chocolate bar for some nuts and also stick some fruit in there so we’re getting some good sugars too.
It obviously takes practise of your new routine before it replaces your bad habit but that’s a given. Making changes requires effort.
Now you have the knowledge, it’s time to put the effort in.
What habits do you want to change?