Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson

“All our life is but a mass of habits.” ~William James

For a number of years now, every December, I reread the book, “The Power of Habits” by Charles Duhigg.

I do this in order to take advantage of the bolus of motivation the coming New Year will bring. To start the year off right I need to work to eliminate my bad habits and create some new good ones.

How habits work and what goes on in our brain during the unfolding of these repetitive patterns is fascinating whether it’s a good or bad habit. In fact, the brain can’t tell the difference between good or bad habits.

In his book, Duhigg explains how the brain actually stops participating in decision making during an emerging habit. The habit simply takes over. That’s as scary as it is revealing. No wonder we sometimes just go through a day (or at least the morning) without even thinking.

He describes how the components of the “habit loop” — cue, routine, reward — can become linked with anticipation and craving. This is when habits can become constructive, disruptive or sometimes destructive. Habits eventually become automatic and unfortunately never really disappear even when we gain influence to overcome them. They are always lurking in the background like an unwelcome relative.

Sadly, habits can form without our permission. During the 18 months of this high-stress pandemic, a few bad habits might have snuck up on any one of us such as eating too much comfort food, social media bingeing, not exercising, or a lack of structure.

However, when we understand the components of habits (cue, routine, reward) they can be fiddled with and, thankfully, bad habits can be overridden.

To break habits, most importantly, we should focus on (and change!) the routine, the middle of the habit loop. The most famous example Duhigg cites is how Alcoholics Anonymous works.

To overpower the habit and the craving for alcohol a new routine was needed. Meetings took the place of drink. In this case the cue (a craving to drink) and reward (relaxation, companionship) remain the same but the routine changed. The new routine became the AA meeting replacing booze, which is actually considered the least rewarding part alcoholism.

If you want to create a new good habit it’s important to focus on the first and third parts of the loop; the cue and reward. So, to start a new habit like running in the morning set out your running shoes and clothes next to your bed (cue) and have a midday treat or record your miles or weight loss in a journal afterwards (reward).

Eventually your brain will start to expect and crave the cue and reward. But new habits take weeks and sometimes months to take hold for the cue to trigger the routine, so be patient.

Duhigg reminds us it’s always possible to fall back into our old habits once in a while whether it’s sugary drinks, excess desserts, biting fingernails or a relapse. His counsel is to actually plan for those slips, note them when they occur and work to get back on track.

Cue-Routine-Reward are the three keys of the habit loop. Reading the book helped me realize any habit or pattern can change, even stubborn habits like smoking or a sweet tooth, and positive habits can always emerge.

There’s hope for all of us. It’s worthwhile to look at your habits to help get the New Year off to a great start.

Patrick Johnson, RN, is the retired Haywood County public health director and an Iraq War veteran. He is a health blogger.

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