Have you ever tried to drink more water or stop eating fast food, but just not been able to sustain the new habit? Derrick Price, MS, programming officer at the Institute of Motion and adjunct faculty at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, explains the anatomy of a habit and gives you strategies to create new behaviors.
Anatomy of a Habit
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that a habit is more than just a repetitive behavior, but rather a construction of three sequential components that make up the habit loop: the cue, the behavior and the reward.
The cue is an environmental or internal trigger that provokes us to learn a behavior. An example of an environmental trigger is placing a foam roller next to your shoes, which triggers you to do self-massage prior to running. Hunger pangs cue you to eat. Internal cues are related to mood. For some people, for instance, depression triggers the urge to eat ice cream.
The behavior is the actual routine we commonly associate with the habit. This learned behavior occurs automatically, free from a specific goal. It may be as simple as always tying the right shoe before the left shoe.
The reward makes behavior stick. The “high” runners feel after a 6-mile run is enough to make them want to repeat the experience. Even though smokers know lighting up isn’t good for them, they still get an immediate blast of endorphins the moment they inhale.
Establishing New Habits
Here is a quick look at an approach to creating new habits using the habit loop. Consider working with a certified health coach to help you strategize and reinforce these habits.
Step 1: Establish goals and milestones. Contrary to popular belief, habits do not take 21 days to form. Habit formation varies greatly from person to person and can take as long as 66 days (Gardner, Lally & Wardle 2012). It’s a long process that requires consistent implementation. If you have an ambitious goal like losing 60 pounds, it’s important to “chunk” it into smaller, less daunting and more realistic outcomes. For example, instead of focusing on losing 60 pounds, a good first milestone is to lose 5 pounds in the first month.
Step 2: Identify motivational factors. Intrinsic (internal) motivation involves doing an activity for the inherent satisfaction rather than for a separable consequence. It may be intrinsically important for you to lose weight for a sense of accomplishment, to improve self-confidence or to accelerate your career. Intrinsic motivation is long-lasting compared to an external motivator.
Step 3: Pick a goal-oriented behavior. While it might seem appealing to make a lot of changes at once, focusing on one habit at a time may lead to greater success (Gardner, Lally & Wardle 2012). Consider different goal-oriented habits and then pick one. For example, if you want to lose weight, you could choose from one of these two behaviors:
- Walk and track 10,000 steps per day. Evidence suggests that regular, “incidental” physical activity is effective for weight loss and overall health.
- Drink 2 cups of water before every meal. Not only may this help with satiety, but it’s calorie-free, and proper hydration may aid in fat loss and overall well-being.
Step 4: Create the cue and reward. Once you’ve selected a behavior, choose a cue that will trigger it. For example, if you opt to drink 2 cups of water before every meal, consider setting a reminder alarm or keeping a water bottle next to the computer screen. Then select a reward to reinforce the behavior.
Step 5: Eliminate disruptors. You may use disruptors as excuses for not accomplishing a new behavior. If you can identify disruptors, you can overcome pitfalls before they occur. For example, if not having water readily available disrupts the behavior of drinking 2 cups of water before every meal, purchase a water bottle that’s easy to fill and transport.
Step 6: Follow up. Hold yourself accountable to new behaviors. Work with a health coach or friend who can help you remain accountable.