People seek for positive changes in their life, i.e. new gym memberships to lose weight, eating healthier foods, going to sleep earlier, quit smoking, and the list goes on…. Although setting the intention to change behaviors is a great first step, oftentimes the pressures of everyday life interfere with the ability to maintain these changes. Therefore, this article looks to encourage sustainable behavior changes by providing you with a simplistic and practical understanding of behaviors and what you can do to promote long-term, sustainable changes in your life.
Habits form out of a necessity and this is commonly referred to as a 'Habit Loop'. Typically, this automated loop of behaviors consist of a “trigger” that sets off the “routine”, resulting in a “reward”. A simple example would be describing the health-disrupting habit of emotional eating. When a person feels stressed (the trigger), they will seek out comfort foods (the routine), that provides temporary relief from feeling stressed (the reward).
In order to promote sustainable change, it is essential to cultivate mindful awareness of the triggers, routines, and rewards that are involved in maintaining your automated habits.
Let’s take the common goal of wanting to wake up early for exercise. The typical ‘habit loop’ plays out like this: 1) Wake early to an alarm and feel tired (the trigger), 2) Reflex reaction to tap the snooze button (the routine), 3) leading to more sleep and saved energy (the reward). The routine of hitting the snooze fulfills the reward to save energy because you feel tired.
We don’t want to neglect the reward because it helps improve the tired feeling. Additionally, we can’t expect the trigger to disappear overnight with sudden awakening in the morning to an abundance of energy. Therefore, the change of routine becomes our primary focus.
At this point, a very simple change can be added to the routine to shift the habit loop. Place your alarm clock or phone across the room before bed. This way, when the alarm clock wakes you up, the new routine is to stand up to turn off the alarm. Research has shown that once someone takes those first steps out of bed in the morning, they are more likely to remain awake and start their day, i.e. exercise, and in turn, the exercise will help to promote restorative sleep and enhance morning energy, permanently resolving the trigger.
In this case, the focus on modifying routine can help to re-route the habit loop. In other cases, the removal of triggers (when possible) may negate the need for the routine and reward (for example, removing oneself from a stressful situation).
You can use this strategy to unravel any of your habits. With a deeper understanding of the triggers, routines, and rewards that direct your daily life, you can adapt a simple change to any habit and make a positive and sustainable difference to your health and well-being.
- By Jason Culp, Naturopathic Doctor at Chiva-Som.