What I want to talk about today is successfully changing our behaviors and how making new healthy habits can be fun. To do this we first need to understand the what, this why and how of habits. Keeping this in mind I will outline some simple steps to take to help make 2017 a year of positive change. Finally, I will leave you with some closing thoughts on empathy and how this can be the motivation you may have been missing.
What Are Habits?
Habits are defined as an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary or in simpler terms something you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.
Why Are Habits Important?
At this point it is important to be clear that habits are not inherently bad. We can have bad habits but we all have, at least some, good habits too. For instance, personal hygiene, exercise routines, music practice and reading are all necessary, pleasurable habits.
Habits are important because they allow our brain to take a bit of a break and go onto autopilot. This is a big relief for the brain considering how much information it needs to process daily. The brain can do this because the basal ganglia control habits. Along with habits the basal ganglia are responsible for voluntary motor control, procedural learning, and emotional function. In contrast, the prefrontal cortex of the brain controls decisions. By understanding this distinction, we can more easily understand why habit changing is not just a matter of “making a decision” to change.
How Do Habits Form?
Understanding how habits form is a key to then being able to change them, or being able to create new healthy habits. Charles Duhigg author of The Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better has been in the field speaking with researchers. What he outlines in his book is a simple loop that our brains identify with each habit.
cue ? reaction ? reward
By studying this pattern in our own habits, we can more easily take charge of the changes we want to make. Take time to identify your cue. What triggers the habits you want to change and more importantly what is the reward? What feels good, at least in the short term, about this routine?
When Is a Good Time to Change Habits?
Ideally, the best time to change a habit is when your routine is already altered. A vacation, therefore, is a great time to put habit changes into place. The same cues aren’t there to trigger you nor are the rewards. No vacation on the horizon? In that case, anytime will work.
6 Simple Steps to Change Habits
Here are some simple steps to get you on your way to lasting change. Remember this is not a quick fix. As with anything, taking time to plan will lead towards lasting success.
- Identify a behavior YOU would like to change. The image above has a few ideas but it is important that the change is meaningful to you. Start small and ensure it is achievable.
- Identify WHY it is important to you. Imagine what you will feel like 1 month, 1 year or 5 years down the road if you put this habit into place.
- Set up a cue that is easy to see, hear and acknowledge. This could be a sticky note, a to do list on your phone, a timer. Remember that creating new habits takes conscious effort.
- When you see your cue, act on it. It will take some time before you are on autopilot.
- Track your progress daily. If you are very social, enlist friends or family to make changes with you. It might not be the same habit but being accountable to someone can go a long way to making lasting change.
- Have a fun, healthy reward in place to help solidify the new habit. If it is a negative habit you are trying to break, it is crucially important to find out what that initial, unconscious reward was so that you can find new, healthier ways to fill that need.
Finally, I want to touch on empathy. It is an emotion we can have in abundance for others but often lack for ourselves. With that in mind I would like to return to number 2 on the above list. I would like you to take that image of yourself after you have made these changes. Now imagine how well you feel, acknowledge how the process was at times difficult, and celebrate your success of having achieved your goal. In essence, I want you to have empathy towards your future, healthier self. By holding this image of a healthier you in your mind’s eye it can ease the efforts behind making lasting habit changes.