Power of Habits

power of habits - You 2.0


Power of Habits

Many of us want to enjoy an active lifestyle. To prevent illness, disease and injury from interrupting a happy life, we all know the importance of healthy practices such as eating nutrient dense foods, exercising regularly, sleeping well and building social networks. But what stops many of us from our good intentions on healthy practice is the power of bad habits, such as craving for comfort foods, avoiding proper exercise, and the pressure of a busy work schedule.

This series explores habits. Science has recently begun to unravel this complex human condition that can be a force for good but more often leads to downward spirals.

This knowledge is particularly important for parents, because habits can form without conscience effort and can have lasting impact for a lifetime.

1. Learn Phase

power of habits - You 2.0

The science of habit formation is relatively young. But with modern tools for mapping where brain activity occurs, scientists have been able to determine that the habit loop has its own biochemical process separate from cognitive memory. Therefore, the following powerful insights are important to note:

  1. Habits are remarkably permanent, and their biochemical footprint in the brain means that they automate action away from the active monitoring of the cognitive self.
     
  2. Habits are triggered by a cue, which can be a location, time of day, emotions, other people or a prior action. Once a cue is triggered, the automaticity of the brain’s process will instigate a set routine, with the expectation of receiving a reinforcing reward. 
     
  3. Habits are formed over time, but are not a form of cognitive learning, instead are driven by their own biochemical response that is better described as a craving. A craving is the biochemical reaction to the cue, which forms over time from the anticipation of the reward. A craving is a joy response to the cue itself.

Much of this science is explored in the book “Power of Habits, why do we do what we do in life and business” by Charles Duhigg.

Armed with a rudimentary understanding of how Habits work, you can counteract your bad habits in simple ways: 

  1. Avoid the contextual cue that leads to your habit, namely change your daily pattern (frequent new places, alter your daily schedule, improve self-awareness, build new friendships, do things in a different order).
     
  2. Take notice of the cues and rewards of your current habits, and proactively alter the routine within the same cues and rewards, for example if you like snacking, then initially change the routine with a healthier version of snack such as chickpeas to reduce risk of diabetes and sugar cravings.
     
  3. Build new habits. The most amazing thing about habits is how powerful the habit loop can be. The repeated cycle of cue-routine-reward, once cemented with a craving of the expectation of the reward, becomes a permanent feature in one’s life. The automaticity of the habit will live on long after you’ve forgotten that it was formed. Habits will activate whenever the cue is triggered. Habits once formed can only be shifted or altered or counteracted, they are near impossible to remove.

We note these comments from one researcher: “Research on population and patient behaviour change suggests that intention is a relatively good indicator of behaviour in longitudinal studies, but generally leaves 50 % to 60 % of the variance in behaviour unexplained”

“Inherent in many social cognitive theories is the assumption that intention and hence behaviour can be influenced by the provision of appropriate information concerning a behaviour. Commonly used interventions in implementation research include dissemination of printed materials, such as guideline recommendations and various forms of education, including continuing medical education and educational outreach. However, a growing body of research shows that individuals who have developed habitual behaviours become less likely to act on new information and may even avoid information that challenges the present behaviour. People appear to form expectations for certain outcomes as behaviours become habitual, something that tends to reduce their sensitivity to change in a context that might otherwise result in new behaviour; people may overlook alternatives simply because their ongoing expectations reduce their awareness of new information. Essentially, habits yield tunnel vision, thus reducing the effectiveness of interventions aimed at changing behaviour through conscious cognitive deliberation.”

This is another example of recent research that explores and explains how long it can take (18 days to 254 days) for habits to form to become truly an “automated process” separate from cognitive behaviour.

Now you can leverage your new knowledge on habits!

 

2. Take Action Phase - How to Form New Healthy Habits

power of habits - You 2.0

You can take affirmative action by leveraging the science of habits to build new healthy habits. Building new habits can help to crowd out bad ones.

For this article, we will focus on how to build healthy habits for your own exercise routine and a healthy diet. These are often the two areas that most people want to change – but note that the general principles are the same for any habit that you want to form.

I point to a useful read on this subject, the book “Power of Habits, why do we do what we do in life and business” by Charles Duhigg, within which the author explores much of the recent scientific research on the habit process. 

Your Motivation

The first key step is to identify a goal that is a strong personal motivation for your journey, some general examples are: you want to have a slim figure to fit into clothes that match your fashion style and personality, or you want to be bikini ready 24-7, or you want to feel strong and have the right posture, or you want to attain athletic excellence, or you want enough energy reserves to play with your children.

Choose your motivational craving:

  1. A personal feeling about your own body image
  2. Body weight, or body fat ratio, or waist size, or other metrics
  3. Performance metrics such as reps, endurance, speed or intensity
  4. Social validation, the feelings of others about your journey
  5. Professional life advancement and career progression
  6. Better family life or romantic relationships

Specifically, if you are trying to form a habit for fitness, then note that researchers have found the following are common craving goals: physical appearance, social validation or accomplishing performance metrics. If your focus is on diet / nutrition, the craving goal might be about arresting the pain or emotion from a chronic condition or earning your treats.

 

A Measurable Goal

From here it is important to set a measurable goal that keeps you on track for what you are craving. Research on the time for formation of the biochemical process in the brain that links craving to the habit cue indicates that it may take 18 days to 254 days [https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674]. So set long term measurable goals such as:

  1. I want to do 200 workouts this year
  2. I want to record eating 200 healthy home cooked meals this year
  3. I want to do 250 days of intermittent fasting this year
  4. I want to do 1,000 push-ups and run/walk 10,000 minutes this year 

These goals and their intuitive link to the motivational craving are useful guides for keeping you on course.

 

Plan for bad days

Also most importantly plan ahead for the days when your will power will wane. Studies on self-control have shown that anticipating challenges ahead and having a plan improves compliance [“The marshmallow tests” research by Walter Mischel]. One simple strategy is to define what a bare minimum workout would be or what is the bare minimum requirement for a healthy meal.

About 15 years ago, I had defined my minimum workout to be any 3 exercises for 3 sets of 10 reps each, plus 10 minutes of walking. Today, I consider 4 minutes of high intensity exercise to be my minimum workout. Research show that just a few minutes per day of high intensity is equivalent to long duration moderate exercise [Tabata research study].

You will find that having a bare minimum workout can help you stay on track on those days that you don’t have time or don’t have the will power or energy. The positive feeling of having done something will spur you forward. 

For a healthy meal, the bare minimum requirement healthy meal might be that plant based whole foods should be 75% or more of the meal, and there should be many colours of food (e.g. minimum of 4). 

I use these simple benchmarks as simple guides to remind myself whether I am on track. They were very powerful guides in forming my own habits on regular exercise and dietary habits. Scientific research on self-control and habit formation have shown these strategies to be effective.

You should also consider adding a social element, to involve a friend or social media sharing to boost your motivation. 

 

Set the Cue

The next key is to identify the regular trigger (the cue) that will instigate your habit.

One of the easiest cues is to use a time of day (e.g. 7am each day) or reference an activity that you already do every day (e.g. after lunch). Also, the most effective trigger might be to make a time commitment to do your planned activity with someone else or a group.

Make the cue easy to recognise and something that repeats without your instigation.

Note research has found that your self-control is like a muscle, it has finite capacity within a day. Therefore, it is best to put your cue (that triggers your activity routine) early in the day. This way you won’t have exhausted your will power before you need to apply it to your healthy tasks. 

For example, for fitness and exercise habit formation, the most useful cues are time based such as upon waking, breakfast, lunch and right after the work-day ends. For meal planning, it is best to plan meals for the week ahead – I have found that cooking a few meals ahead of time can help reduce the temptation and improve compliance. Also simply making a conscience calendar entry for meal intentions and using simple recipes for execution can be very effective. Research indicates that most people rotate only 9 recipes for their entire set of meals.

 

The routine & reward

To complete the habit loop, you must define the routine and its reward. The reward is what will help to cement the craving for your new habit. 

For meal routines, the easiest approach would be to add beans, lentils, peas (legumes) to your diet. These are readily available from canned brands of many varieties. This adds colour, different tastes and nutrient richness to your meals. Combining legumes with similarly easy sources of fruits and vegetables will meet most or all of your nutrition needs. 

Add animal protein foods if needed to enjoy your meals, but keep in mind that research indicates that eating high quantities of animal protein results in weight gain, increased body fat ratio and higher risk of diabetes. So a healthy meal should be mostly plant based.

Read more: The EPIC-PANACEA study: explained in this video

Nutrition researchers that compared weight loss achieved from calorie reduction diets versus simply eating more beans, lentils and peas came out in favour of eating legumes – eating 5 cups of legumes per week lead to more weight loss than removing 500 calories per day! 

A routine that is too restrictive will strain your will power, so remember to treat yourself regularly. The self-reward of a treat, and even sharing photos of the treat moment with a group or on social media is a powerful signal to the craving brain – this is how you will cement a habit. 

Practice the earning your treat strategy, for example when you have 3 to 5 meals in consecutive days that meet or surpass your bare minimum requirement for a healthy meal, then treat yourself and share your treat moment with as many people as possible! This is your reward!

For fitness and exercise goals, similarly make your routine simple, consistent in time and location and always have that bare minimum workout in your back pocket (for those ‘bad days’). You can also consider the reward strategy of earning your treat to cement a craving for exercise habits. However, research indicates that exercise habits form best through the feeling of accomplishment. Some examples of exercise accomplishments are (1) achieving a new performance metric and (2) the glory from social sharing - the reward of being recognised by others is critical to forming an exercise habit … so use your camera often!

One useful approach to feed your sense of accomplishment is to take a selfie photo before your workout and a selfie photo shortly after your workout … you will notice and enjoy the difference in your own body from your efforts. Your post workout image is also a strong indicator of your future self. This sense of accomplishment today and for the future will reinforce your craving for you2.0! and craving this self-reward is what drives your habit creation!

Believe in yourself and believe in your journey … the formation of new habits is a biochemical process in your craving brain … so keep reminding yourself, through reward reinforcement and social validation that you are on the right track!!!

 

3. The Test Phase - Enjoy Being the Centre of Attention!

power of habits - You 2.0

In this series, we have reviewed the science of habits, namely scientist now understand habits to be a separate biochemical process in the brain distinct from cognitive memory. This process is geared by a craving, that is a deep motivation that is cemented with the habit loop of a cue, routine and reward … it is the motivational craving that keeps you on track.

So now how do you know that you are progressing toward a habit or that you have formed a habit? 

Scientist are still debating this but some believe that one useful tool is the self-reported habit index (SRHI).

An SRHI is a series of self-reflection questions that you ask yourself to determine if you are more or less susceptible to forming habits (automaticity) or driven by routine. 

Here is one example of SRHI for a diet/nutrition habit journey:

Top 5 questions about a conscious routine mindset

  • I tend to like routine
  • I find comfort in regularity
  • I rely on what is tried and tested rather than exploring something new
  • I quite happily work within my comfort zone rather than challenging myself.
  • I tend to stick with the version of the software package that I am familiar with for as long as I can

And the top 5 questions about an Automaticity mindset

  • I often find myself finishing off a packet of biscuits just because it is lying there.
  • I often find myself opening up the cabinet to take a snack
  • When walking past a plate of sweets or biscuits, I can't resist taking one.
  • Television makes me particularly prone to uncontrolled eating
  • I often find myself eating without being aware of it

What is noteworthy is how this type of self-assessment has relevance across many areas of your life. Test such as the SRHI relies on self-awareness. The less that you are self-aware, the more likely that you already have many habits (automated processes) in your life and these will be deeply cemented. The more self-aware you are, the more you are conscious about routine and the more difficult it will be to form habits. 

But the more self-aware then the longer it will take you to develop a new habit. 

But the key take-away is that habit formation in one aspect of life predicts and correlates with your ability to form and sustain habits in other aspects of your life.

Your good habits in your Financial wellness (e.g. setting and monitoring a monthly spending budget) are highly correlated with your eating habits (e.g. self-monitoring your number of healthy meals). Simple strategies in one area, such as periodically reviewing the list of things that you purchased recently, will lead to similar behaviour in another area such as doing a mental check of the type of foods and meals that you ate this week. Studies have shown that doing lists and self-reviews is itself a way to develop habits. These are examples of self-tests.   

So one key area for deciding on your own self-test is how specific and measurable is your habit goal. The most effective way to form a habit is to repeatedly reward yourself for your own progress – to reward progress requires that you have specific and measurable goals that align with your motivational craving. 

Very recent research on habit formation notes that goal setting is an area that might require some guidance: Participants appeared receptive to the habit-formation approach, and considered it easy to follow and fruitful as a behaviour change strategy. Yet, content analysis of participants’ habit-formation goals indicated considerable variation in the apparent quality of self-chosen goals, with many goals appearing theoretically suboptimal for habit-formation. Developing a habit depends on initiating and repeating a behaviour, and extensive research on goal-setting has revealed that the goals most effective for instigating behaviour change are specific and measurable. Additionally, the mental context-behaviour association that underpins the habit process is best fostered by careful planning of a specific action in the presence of salient, event-based cues located within existing routines. However, many participants’ habit goals were vague, specified multiple behaviours, failed to identify a context for performance, or used time-based cues, which require continuous environmental monitoring and so are ill-suited to automatisation.”

Read More:Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention” 

Your motivational craving supporting your habit formation might be something emotional such as: “I want to feel good about my body image and to be confident when wearing my bikini”. But this must be aligned with a measurable long term goal such as: “I will eat 200 healthy meals this year”. From such a goal metric then you can develop short term routines and rewards such as: “When I eat 3 to 5 healthy meals in a week, then I will treat myself” – this in turn will drive your key self-test! And this is where you will want to enjoy and share your own progress … the more you share with others, the more you enjoy your progress, then the more you will promote the formation the biochemical process in your craving brain … you will be well on your way to forming and cementing a healthy habit!!

So the keys are:

  1. Set a very specific motivational craving
  2. Align your craving with a measurable long-term goal
  3. Equate your long-term metric to a short-term goal
  4. Reward yourself regularly for achieving short-term goals
  5. Reinforce your craving brain process thru social sharing about your progress

Also note that this applies to children even more so because of their lack of self-awareness. So be extra mindful as a parent.

Remember that you may need help from health experts to create those measurable long term and progress monitoring short term self-test goals … 

Your camera, your friends and social networks are your best friends for forming healthy habits!

Enjoy!


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