Healthy Habit Building
“Man is largely a creature of habit, and many of his behaviors are more or less automatic reflexes from the stimuli of his environment.” This quote by G. Stanley Hall illustrates how important cues from our surroundings are in the process of habit formation. Whether habits are helpful or not, they become deeply ingrained in our brains. For example, every time you ride in a car, you may automatically put your seatbelt on without even thinking about it. In this example, the car is the environmental stimuli, and putting on the seatbelt is the automatic response. One primary benefit of habit formation is that you are able to perform useful behaviors without wasting time and energy deliberating about what to do; your brain immediately recognizes the behaviors it associates with certain environments and those behaviors become automatic.
While we know habits can be incredibly useful, how exactly are they formed? Habits are built through learning and repetition that is sustained through pursuing goals. Whether that goal is to achieve a new personal best record, satisfy hunger cues, or accomplish a work task, associated cues with behavioral responses help to meet each goal. For example, traveling to a destination may have cues such as turning at certain streets. In addition, thinking of the behavior as well as the behavior itself are triggered by cues. These cues are the very start of the habit loop process.
The elements that produce a habit loop include the cue or trigger, the action or behavior, and the associated reward. Stress can also serve as a cue that one responds to with the end goal being a reduction of stress as the reward. Behaviors such as drinking or using other addictive substances can become maladaptive habits that provide a temporary reduction of stress but are unhelpful long-term. In this way, habits differ from routines even though they are often confused.
Habit Versus Routine
The difference between a habit and a routine is that a routine involves repeated behavior that is not necessarily performed in response to an ingrained impulse. For example, doing laundry or going to the gym as part of your weekly routine are not necessarily due to a cue that triggers an impulse but rather because you feel you need to complete those tasks. Habits may feel like they are less intentional or less within our control; however, there are ways to make creating new habits more accessible.
One accessible way of creating new habits is through a technique called habit stacking that involves “stacking” a new desired behavior onto an existing one in order to help you not only remember to perform it but also to engage in it while requiring less mental effort because strong synaptic connections are already in place. Not only does it make habit change less overwhelming, but it provides an easy built-in reminder. The best way to begin habit stacking is to identify all possibilities, start with small steps, be specific, choose a realistic cue, and give yourself a reasonable timeline to implement the changes and any additional progression.
Building Better Habits
Building better habits requires discipline, but it is possible. Remember to put yourself in positions where you are more likely to engage in the desired behavior, create a plan to repeat the behavior, and develop a small reward for engaging in your behavior that doesn’t impede it. This can be as simple as choosing to watch a certain television show or listen to a podcast while exercising so you are more motivated to engage in the desired behavior of exercising. While intrinsic motivation is wonderful, external incentives and rewards can help with habit building because it encourages the individual to engage with the desired behavior initially. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time to build healthier habits. Some habits can be formed in a matter of weeks; however, others can take several months to form. How long each habit takes to become solidified depends on a multitude of factors, including the experiences and traits of the individual as well as the desired behavior itself.
Breaking Unhelpful Habits
Now that we know how to build better habits, how do we break and replace established maladaptive habits? Maladaptive habits might be drinking, smoking, or even excessively using our phones. Habits are hard to break because they are a person engaging with behaviors on auto-pilot. We don’t typically scrutinize why a “bad” habit is carried out; therefore, it’s ingrained in our minds due to the rewarding feelings it can trigger or has triggered in the past. It’s imperative to be mindful and curious about why you engage in an unhelpful habit in addition to what other options are available. Identify what prompts the maladaptive habit as well as any noticeable triggers or anything that points to the root of the triggers. Always ground yourself in why you want to make a change in the first place and how this change aligns with your values. If you notice you are engaging in maladaptive habits that are particularly difficult to change or are part of an addiction or other mental health condition, consider seeking professional mental health treatment for assistance or support.