Old habits can be hard to break, and new habits hard to make, but with these six basic steps you can develop new, healthy behaviors that stick.
Can You Retrain Your Brain?
Make your list and check it twice. This time you’re going to kill it:
- Make a healthy snack
- Go to the gym
- Don’t waste time on cell phone
- Read a classic novel
- House train your pet
We all know habits don’t change overnight — not for simple doggies and not for big-brained human beings. But there’s good news: research shows that just like Rex can learn that he should go potty outside instead of on your gym bag, you can rewire your brain to change your own habits.1 But we humans need a subtler approach than a few treats and “good boys” to change our ways.
Here’s how you can better understand how habits form and how to replace bad ones with good.
6 Steps to Changing Habits
- Identify Cues.
Something has to trigger a habit, and a cue can be anything. Maybe stress makes you crave chocolate, or the sound of your alarm triggers you to hit the snooze button. Identifying cues helps you understand what puts your habits into motion.
- Disrupt Once you know the cues, you can throw bad habits off track. If the alarm cues you to bash the snooze button every morning, put the alarm clock on the other side of the room. Trekking across the cold floor will likely disrupt the snooze habit.
- Replace. Research shows that replacing a bad behavior with a good one is more effective than stopping the bad behavior alone.2 The new behavior “interferes” with the old habit and prevents your brain from going into autopilot. Deciding to eat fruit every time your mind thinks “cookie” substitutes a positive behavior for the negative habit.
- Keep It Simple. It’s usually hard to change a habit because the behavior has become easy and automatic. The opposite is true, too: new behaviors can be hard because your brain’s basal ganglia, (the “autopilot” part), hasn’t taken over this behavior yet.3Simplifying new behaviors helps you integrate them into your autopilot routines.
- Think Long-Term. Habits often form because they satisfy short-term impulses, the way chewing on your nails might immediately calm your nerves. But short-term desires often have long-term consequences, like nasty, splintered, chewed up fingers. Focusing long term while trying to change some habits will help you remember why you’re investing the effort.
- Persist. Research has shown that what you’ve done before is a strong indicator of what you’ll do next. This means established habits are hard to break. But the good news is, if you keep at it, your new behaviors will turn into habits, too.4Persistence works — at first it might be painful to get up at 5am for that jog, but soon it will be second nature.
- Identify Cues.
Give it another go with all these tips in mind. This time, toss the chips and replace them with veggies; when your brain craves salty, fried potatoes, it found carrots instead. Promise yourself that when you have the urge to kill some time on your cell phone, you’ll disrupt the urge by picking up good book instead.
Finally, keep your gym bag in the car so you don’t forget it — the first step toward forming a new 15-minutes-on-the-treadmill-during-lunch habit.
So, habits can be changed, and with a bit of time and some effort, healthy behaviors can become second nature. Now get on it, so you can be Healthy For Good!
1 Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2014
2 Breaking Habits with Implementation Intentions: A Test of Underlying Processes, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011
3 The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2006
4 Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories, Health Psychology Review, 2016
Copyright © 2018 American Heart Association, Healthy For GoodTM, heart.org/healthyforgood