How Habits Form (And What You Can Do About It!)

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A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an intriguing article on product marketing called “Psst, You in Aisle 5.”

Paralleling the discussion of how product marketers collect vast amounts of information about us and use this information to better target their advertising to our purchasing decisions was a well described examination on how habits are formed.

The magazine article was a sampling from “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg. The book, released on Feb 28, delves deep into the brain and discovers why we sometimes do things the same way over and over again without much thought.

Understanding habit formation and deregulation has proved useful in businesses—using information gleaned from the analysis of  house-cleaning routines led to a wild increase in the sales of Febreze©.

But on a smaller, more personal scale—everyone has bad habits they wish they could break, or good habits they wish they could get motivated to pick up. So knowing what happens in your brain as you create and execute your habits can help you control what you do. And people with diabetes can harness that knowledge to help them lose weight or exercise more, leading to better blood glucose control.

Duhigg describes habit formation as a three step loop.  The first step is the trigger that initiates the habit, the second is the actual routine of the habit and the last is the reward for completing the habit.

Initially, in the formation of a habit, the brain is an active participant controlling actions every step of the way. But as the routine is formed, the habit is cemented into place and the brain sets up a system associating the sequence of actions with the cue.  When the cue triggers, the routine plays.

As you complete the loop over and over again, the response becomes more and more automatic, until there is little conscious decision making going on.

For example, if the alarm rings at 6:30, you get up, get ready for the day and go to the kitchen to reward yourself with some breakfast. But say you accidentally set your alarm for 6:30 on a day off, and wake up in a mild fog—you may find that you begin to move through your usual routine unconsciously.

The cue in this example is pretty clear. But frequently they are much more subtle. So if you can figure out the specific cues that set off a routine and the underlying reward you are seeking, then you may be able to substitute a more healthful action into the routine and still end up with a reward (whether that reward is physical or psychological).  You then have a good shot at changing a damaging behavior to a more productive one.

Duhigg cites an example from his own life that corresponds to the struggles many patients with diabetes have surrounding food. In his case, every afternoon he found himself wandering to the cafeteria for a cookie and some chit-chat. He soon realized the daily cookie was taking its toll on his waistline, so he decided to analyze both the cue and the reward he was looking for in attempts to keep the satisfaction but dump the cookie.

Duhigg discovered that clock striking 3:30 every afternoon at work signaled cookie time. There was his cue. He then focused on defining what reward he was looking for by replacing the cookie with other distractions—a walk, an apple, a conversation with an associate—and evaluating their pleasure responses.

He realized that what he was really craving was some conversation, not sweets. After spending most of his time alone at his desk with his computer, getting a cookie had been an excuse for chatting with friends. Now, a 10-minute talk fills his need and provides the reward of engaging with others.

He broke his bad cookie habit by asking himself these questions in order to decode the trigger for his urge (in this case, the urge to eat) and then matching the reward to the need:

Where are you when the urge strikes?
At what time of day?
Who is around?
What were you doing right before  you got the urge?
How do you feel, emotionally?

If you have a food-related habit you can’t seem to break, try answering these questions every time you feel the itch. Soon, you’re bound to find some situational similarities that prompt your habit. Then you can figure out if your habit reflects what it really is that you crave.

And sometimes, you may find that the reward you want actually is food. If that is the case, eat!! Just substitute in more nutritious, lower calorie (but still flavorful!) foods like carrots and hummus or a handful of almonds.

But often, you’ll find that over-eating can be filling in for other emotional needs, such as boredom or loneliness. If this is the case, find a different way to engage your mind—chat with a friend, take a brisk walk, or read a good book.

Getting a good handle on your actions and exploring your habits is the first step in making improvements to your daily routine and overall health. Hey, if understanding habit formation can sell millions of dollars of air freshener, just image what it can do for your lifestyle management!

By Nora Saul, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Manager of Nutritional Services at Joslin

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