Breaking the habit loop

Have you ever noticed when you’re doing something out of habit, like taking a shower or driving to work, that you think of all sorts of things that have nothing to do with taking a shower or driving to work? That’s your brain on autopilot. You are in a habit loop.

Think about the last time you learned something new, drove a new route, or started a new job. When something’s new, your brain slows down to make a myriad of decisions. Once you’ve done something for a while, your brain shifts to autopilot.

Because your brain saves energy being on autopilot, old habits can be hard to break. And new habits can be slow to form because new habits take full brain power.

So how does a habit loop work?

  • Every habit starts with a cue
  • The cue triggers an action
  • The action leads to a reward

If you want to change a habit, first think about the cue and the action
Let’s say you want to stop snacking at night. What cue drives you into the kitchen? Is it hunger? Boredom? Or maybe you automatically go find a snack because you’re watching TV.

If your cue is hunger, can you eat dinner a little later so you aren’t hungry before you head to bed? Or drink a big glass of water to feel full? If you’re bored, can you pick up a book instead of a snack? If it’s watching TV, can you turn the TV off and head to bed earlier?

And if you don’t want to change the cue, then just change the action. For instance, if you’re looking for something easy to eat, it helps to not have chips, cookies or ice cream in the house! What else do you like to eat that’s easy and quick but is healthier for you?

If you want to start a new habit, the steps are the same, but now you’re inventing them which is fun
Let’s say you want to exercise more. You’re looking for small wins to help form a new habit, so think of something that appeals to you and that you have time for. Do you have time for short walk before breakfast? Then your cue may be getting up and getting your teeth brushed. Or maybe you have more time and energy at lunch. Then your cue is to head outside before taking a lunch break.

If you love the social side of taking a class or are motivated by an investment and a schedule, sign up for a beginner’s exercise group. Then your cue is the class schedule, and the action is the class.

Now comes the hard part – the reward
Two people can have the same habit but do it for completely different reasons. Understanding what motivates you helps you reshape an old habit or win at getting a new habit firmly in place.

In the food scenario, what do you like about snacking at night? Why do you do it? How does it make you feel? The same goes for exercise. What will make you feel good about it? Do you want to lose weight? Or prep for a trip that will include a lot of physical activity? Do you like being outside or inside? Maybe you like being part of a class? Or do you want to work up to a competitive event?

If you aren’t sure what motivates you, think back to when you were eight to get a snapshot of you in a “purer” form.

  • Did you like being on a team? Or did you prefer spending time doing things on your own?
  • What did you do with your free time when you had no obligations?
  • Did you spend more time inside or outside?
  • Were you a natural early riser or did you prefer night hours?
  • Were you more comfortable when there were clear rules and expectations? Or were you a rule bender?
  • What were your favorite foods?
  • Describe your best friend. What made you love hanging out with them?
  • What was your favorite part of the school day?

Is there something in these answers that gives you a clue about who you are and how your brain works? Does it help you recognize things that are habit cues for you? Or give you ideas for cues to start new habits? Do the answers give you ideas for actions that you love, and remind you of what you’ve always loved as a reward?

Great. Now track your changed or new habit in a planner. Each day is a fresh start. What happened? What didn’t happen? What’s the plan for tomorrow?

And remember to give your brain time to break or form a new habit. Look for small steps and easy wins. You can change habits. Big breath. Start today.

Sending you the peace and balance of a Maine tidal pool



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