Hack Your Brain to Turn Bad Habits Into Good Ones

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This post was written by Dr. Michael Roussell, PhD. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. For more from Dr. Mike, follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Caitlin Covington

Our days are run by habits, little routines lined up back to back that allow us to go through our daily activities without much thought to many of the motor sequences our bodies put together. While habits are essential to getting things done, imagine having to stop and consciously think how to brush your teeth when you enter the bathroom each morning. Habits run our lives. Unfortunately, habits come in two flavors: good (like brushing your teeth each morning) and bad (like having a doughnut after you brush your teeth each morning).

Making meaningful and long-lasting changes in your body centers on your ability to form and execute new goal achieving activities consistently enough that they become habitual. This is easier than it sounds, but the importance is immense. I personally didn’t the true important of habits until reading The Power of Habit, in which author Charles Duhigg provided a clear and insightful look into how habits are wired in the human brain.

Here are the two things needed to differentiate between bad habits and good habits, and how to apply them to your own fitness journey.

  1. You can’t erase a habit, you can only overwrite one. Few would argue an alcoholic doesn’t have a life long struggle against drinking. I would venture to say the same is true for sugar. It’s important to stay cognizant of the habits you develop and the things you’ll want your body to do — forever.
  2. The most successful new habits are inserted into current habit loops. Habits are formed via a habit loop. A habit loop consists of three distinct parts: cue, routine, reward. So what you need to do in order to maximize success is not just to identify a bad habit, but identify the parts of your bad habit loop. Unfortunately, each of these components can be tricky to tease out.

Let’s look at a case study about someone who wants start eating healthier. Breakfast is a key meal that really sets the tone for the day nutritionally, so it will be the focus of this case study. Here’s what a (perhaps typical American male) subject’s morning looks like. We’ll call him Tom:

  • Wake up.
  • Take a shower.
  • Go downstairs.
  • Eat a refined carb (bagel, cereal, etc.) meal or skip breakfast entirely.
  • Watch a little bit of SportsCenter.
  • Head out the door in time to beat the morning traffic.

First we start by identifying Tom’s bad habit loop. Then we’ll hack in the good behaviors in order to overwrite the bad habit.

The cue here is simple. Waking up and going to down to the kitchen. The routine is eating an unhealthy, sugar-laden breakfast.

But what’s the reward? The good feeling from a sugar rush? Often times with bad food habits, the meal itself isn’t the actual reward. So for Tom, I would argue the sugar rush or sugar high isn’t the reward.

He tries to get out of his house before the morning traffic, but again, I doubt missing the morning rush is Tom’s big motivator. This leaves us with SportsCenter. (What guy doesn’t look forward to a morning dose of SportsCenter?) Further conversations with Tom reveal he grabs a bagel or ready to eat cereal because it’s fast and he can eat it while watching TV before he heads out the door

The reward is SportsCenter... not the food. The bad behavior allows him to enjoy the reward. Tom’s bad habit loop thus looks like this:

  • Cue: Go downstairs to the kitchen in the morning.
  • Routine: Eat a fast and refined carbohydrate breakfast.
  • Reward: Relax and watch SportsCenter before leaving for work.

Now we just need to hack the routine in order to insert a new breakfast action that still allows for Tom to relax and watch Sportscenter. This requires a meal that’s fast and nutritious. Tom, like many people, could be under the impression that eating healthy takes a lot of time and preparation. Thus healthy eating would mean that he’d miss his morning dose of Stewart Scott. The simple solution in this scenario could be a quick, nutrient-packed smoothie.

⅔ cup mixed berries
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 serving greens powder
2 cups unsweetened vanilla almond milk
2 scoops vanilla protein powder
3 tablespoons walnuts
3-4 ice cubes

Tom can toss all this into a blender and have it ready to drink faster than it takes his toaster to toast his bagel. His new, healthier habit loop might look like this:

  • Cue: Go downstairs to the kitchen in the morning.
  • Routine: Make a nutrient-packed smoothie.
  • Reward: Relax and watch SportsCenter before leaving for work.

As you can see, we’ve simply hijacked the bad habit loop, entered in the behavior that we want (in the routine section), and allowed Tom the same payoff as before.

This is one example of how to hijack a bad habit loop. Sometimes the cue is what needs to be changed, and often times it can take some work to determine what your actual reward is. And as Tom’s example shows, it’s often not what we initially think.

It’s worth taking the time to identify and dissect bad habit loops to make our health and fitness journeys that much easier. Finding good behaviors is one thing. Creating healthier habit loops can help us overcome the real challenge of sticking with them. Our bodies will thank us.

Do you have a bad habit loop you're trying to break? Let us know in the comments below or connect with other Greatists on our community pages!

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