What Science Says About Forming Healthier Habits
Don’t you find the act of driving a car amazing? I do. I leave my garage and go 13 miles into work along a multitude of exits, stoplights, and passing cars, and I do it without even thinking. In fact, I won’t be able to tell you anything specific about my drive yesterday. It happens as if we are on autopilot. For some automatic actions, we learn to make decisions without much conscious awareness.
Our actions involve a spectrum from conscious to unconscious. When we act less consciously we say that we are acting out of habit. Our brains want to put as much on automatic pilot as possible. It is more efficient and it frees up energy to scan for risks and information that might be useful for survival.
The Anatomy of a Habit
This natural, if I may say wired, tendency to want to put everyday actions into autopilot is the root of both good and bad when it comes to our health. If you are wanting to break the routine and institute a new automatic response – beware – it is not very easy. Just ask anyone who has started on a New Year’s Resolution to find it broken before the end of spring.
Psychologists like Richard Thatcher and BJ Fogg have pointed out the anatomy of a habit. There is recognition that once a habit is formed, especially if it is strongly adopted, it never really goes away. The mental wiring stays present and is the reason why old habits that were thought to have been extinguished may show up under certain circumstances.
But there is good news. Once we understand that many actions that are habitual have a trigger or a cue we can begin to think about using the power of that cue for a more positive response.
Let me give you an example.
Adding Visual Reminders to Form Better Habits
Every morning there are three things I consistently do as sure as the sun rises. I use the restroom, I brush my teeth, and I make a pot of coffee. My getting up in the morning is the trigger to do certain actions.
Now, what if I want to add a few more actions – let’s say go on a run and drink my morning protein drink for breakfast? One approach is to begin to pair cues and actions.
Every day, I set out my protein powder next to my coffee as a visual reminder (and definitely reducing the barrier to action by having it easily accessible) as well as set out my running clothes in the bathroom nest to the sink. Pairing is just one example of riding on a cue to support a new action.
The Power of Cues and Actions
Habits must be formed with care. They take time and thoughtful techniques to not just jumpstart an action but begin to hardwire it into your daily life. And these habits can be incorporated with relatively small steps. These steps – when taken together – can add up to big results, and are often easier to handle than huge sweeping changes that can be unsettling.
When I was a high school student playing football, I was not the most physically gifted by any measure. I was underweight and slower than most running backs. Coach Hunter spent time with me to explore the action I could take to improve my chances of success when I ran the ball.
We came upon balance. He had me watch spin moves and balance in running backs and started a series of drills for me to keep my balance after I got hit. They included spin drills and running with one leg and balancing my fall with one hand.
Would you believe it? I actually automatically did a spin move and kept my balance during the season. Recognition of the cues and action to take must be followed by exercising those actions. We are not going for perfection but acting 8 times out of 10 is success to me!
How Good Coaching Reinforces Better Habits
A coach should work with you to uncover the cues that trigger certain behavior and then work with you to highlight how you might effectively create a new habit. The exploration and discovery that a coach can provide is critical to sustainable behavior change.
At Herbalife Nutrition, we are focused on lasting results and provide a path to new habits by:
- helping individuals identify their cues
- recognizing the actions that those cues trigger
- understanding the underlying response for the action-perhaps a past belief or emotional need
- then exercising new actions to more effectively react to the trigger or cue
Habits formation takes diligence, and it is a process that benefits from being addressed through the thoughtful guidance of a coach.