Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Secret Ingredient to Great Habits

How are those New Year’s Resolutions coming along? It took me all the way into February to decide on mine – but I’m off to a good start thanks to The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Photo from:
I read this amazing book last year and put Duhigg’s theory to the test with promising results. Here’s a quickie review of the book and how I used it to lose over twenty pounds!

The Habit Cycle
There are three key ingredients (well, arguably four – but I’ll get to that in a bit) to a well-honed habit: the cue, the routine, and the reward – in that order - repeated over and over. Here’s a visual:  

For example:
Cue – My teeth feel gross
Routine – I brush my teeth
Reward – My teeth feel great!

Woman brushing teeth
Wikimedia Commons: Photographer: Bill Branson
 Well, that seems easy. So why is it so difficult to form a habit? Why do we go to the gym for two straight weeks, then every other day, and then surrender to a bag of Cheetos?

Wikimedia Commons: By Fourohfour
The Secret Ingredient
A habit takes about 30 days to develop, right? Well, not really. It takes as long as it takes to build a craving.  The craving is what separates a well-honed habit from an on-again off-again behavior pattern. It develops when the routine is repeatedly and continuously paired with the cue and reward – the brain pays attention and forms a new neural pathway. That pathway solidifies the likelihood we will practice that habit – it’s basically hardwired into our brain.
Another visual:

Here’s an example:
A woman comes home from work tired and grouchy (cue). She goes for a 30 minute run (routine). She feels better (reward!) She continues this cycle, even when she doesn't want to, and actually starts craving the half-hour run. The craving makes it easy to continue – and a good, healthy habit is fully formed.
Running woman
Wikimedia Commons: By Peter Van Der Sluijs
Conversely, the same woman comes home from work tired and grouchy (cue).  Each day she relaxes in front of the TV with a bag of chips (routine). She feels better (reward!) Guess what she craves?

Forming New Habits
Last year I put “The Power of Habit” to the test. Intrigued by my daughter’s love of fresh fruit – she’ll order it instead of French fries! - I wondered if I could manipulate my own eating habits. I liked fruits and vegetables, I just didn’t crave them. Cheese and crackers were more my thing when hunger struck.
So every time I was hungry (cue) – and I mean every single time - I ate a fruit or a vegetable (routine). I waited for the hunger to dissipate (reward) and then I would eat the rest of my meal. My goal was to train my brain to crave healthy foods when I was hungry – and it worked! Not only did I develop a craving for fruits and vegetables, I found myself filling up on them prior to eating anything else, and I dropped twenty pounds in three months.

Picture of fruit and vegetables
Wikimedia Commons: By
This year I’m working on a more comprehensive habit, something Duhigg calls a Keystone Habit . I’ll write about that next time. Meanwhile, consider working on a new habit for 2015 – and don’t give up –success will come if you hold out for the craving!