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Creatures Of Habit

June 29
16:08 2019

By: Dr. Abigail Joseph – 

Have you ever experienced a power outage, yet still despite being aware of not having electricity you do something stupid like try to turn on the TV, or flip a light switch or maybe try the microwave? My parents used to always laugh at my cousins and I because they would purposely ask us to do stuff like turn on the television for them or plug in the fan. It was entertaining to see how we would do it without giving much thought to the fact that there was no electricity. It was somewhat “automatic.” Habits are the brain’s autopilot mode. If you pay keen attention to your life there are many things we do automatically. It’s a habit.

When I was younger my mom bought me a book entitled, “The 7 habits of highly effective teenagers.” The thing that stayed with me the most about that book was how they described a habit. It said, “A habit is the hardest thing to get rid of; you take away the H and you still have A BIT, you take away the A and you still have BIT, and if you take away the B you still have IT!” It blew my mind, because it expressed perfectly how hard it is to really get rid of a habit.

According to the dictionary, a habit is an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. Many of our daily actions occur automatically and without much thought because we have repeated the action so many times that our brain has memorized exactly what it is that needs to be done in the specific manner that you have been doing it. Our brain creates pathways and shortcuts to perform more efficiently and once the habit is formed, the brain is able to allow the task to occur automatically so that it can focus on other things. This adaptive quality of the brain is called Neuroplasticity. The brain creates neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly. Every time we perform a particular act it stimulates these specific neuronal patterns in the brain and it kicks in automatically.

To break down habit formation, we need to understand the three step loop in forming a habit: Cue, routine, reward. This is the science behind a habit. We define habits as good or bad but your brain can’t tell the difference. For us, a bad habit is one that has poor or unfavorable outcomes and are often times frowned upon or discouraged by others. For this reason we try to break free from them. But you and I both know it is not as easy as it sounds to break from what others consider a bad habit. Whenever we want to break away from certain habits we first need to understand the habit and why it formed in the first place. So let’s tackle the three step loop shall we?

I started a new habit shortly after my vacation started. Every afternoon at 3:30pm I would hop in my truck and take a drive to Pan Dulce and buy one single doughnut, sit in my truck, eat it and drive back home as if nothing happened. What do you guys think? Is this a bad habit or a good habit? Remember my brain does not know it is good or bad, all it knows is that I’ve been doing it every day so now I’m on autopilot mode in regard to that routine and gaining a few pounds as a result. I don’t even need to look at the clock. Sure enough at 3:30pm I will crave my doughnut. STEP ONE: Identify the routine. In this scenario my routine is the habit I want to change. It’s the behavior or action of driving to the pastry store, buying a doughnut, eating it and then going back home. STEP TWO: Identify your cue. The cue is the trigger for your routine. It’s the signal that tells the brain to perform the routine. So I want to ask myself – why did I go to the pastry store? Was I hungry? Was my blood sugar low? Did I need a change of scenery? Am I bored? Do I need a distraction? In order to answer or identify the cue I need to do a series of experiments that require at times days and even weeks. This leads us to experimenting with rewards. This experiment requires that every time 3:30pm comes and I feel the urge to go to buy a doughnut, over a series of days I try different rewards – such as maybe going to the refrigerator and drinking a glass of water, eating a slice of watermelon, taking a drive without stopping at the store, you get the idea? Basically trying new things to see if the craving is satisfied. What I choose to do instead of buying the doughnut is not important. The point of the experiment is to test which craving is driving the routine.

It is important to set an alarm 15 minutes after returning from whatever activity is selected as a substitute. When the alarm goes off we need to ask ourselves if we still feel the need or urge to participate in the activity. In my case I will ask myself if I’m still craving the doughnut. It is important to set the time and ask the question because it helps to determine if the craving is driven by hunger, the need to go for a drive, feeling bored etc. Now before I continue I want you to understand that cravings do not only refer to food or being hungry but rather it describes a great desire for something. This can be food, the presence of another, participating in a particular action, etc. When we’ve identified our routine and our reward then we can go back and isolate our cue. STEP THREE: Isolate the cue. Psychologists have suggested that we think about 5 things when we get the urge to fill our craving. During your experiment in identifying your reward you should ask yourself this: what is your location, time, emotional state, persons present and your preceding action. For me it became pretty clear that my cue for my habit was the need to change scenery. STEP FOUR: Have a plan. Once you’ve figured out your cue that was driving your routine you can begin to shift your behavior. You can change to a better routine IF you plan for your cue. Choosing a behavior that rewards your craving is possible, but you need a plan.

Breaking habits are hard because it is an automatic formula: when I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE to get a REWARD. Change from the norm can be difficult. Sometimes it requires multiple attempts. But once you understand how the loop works you can gain back control.

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