- Understanding the habit loop
Changing your behaviour starts with understanding how habits form. Habits often form without us knowing and are responsible for a large portion of our daily lives. The habit loop consists of 3 parts:
- The cue
- The routine
- The reward
When we perform a behaviour enough times the brain learns to run on auto pilot, thereby dedicating less power to make decisions and freeing up bandwidth for other important decisions. The more times we reward behaviours the more engrained they become.
A cue signals the brain into auto-mode, allowing you to perform some task or react a certain way: the routine. The reward signals to your brain to remember the routine, or forget it, based on the outcome.
Understanding this is important for many reasons. Identifying the behaviours, or routines, is important in being able to change them. When you know what actions or inactions are effecting your health you can take steps towards change. You know you overeat at night and blow your caloric deficit to shit near bed time.
After you identify the routines that are hindering forward progress you can move to identifying the cues that lead to these behaviours. You’re bored at night so you open the fridge or cupboards when you walk by as you wander your house. Then you eat the bag of chips on the couch until its gone.
Knowledge is a great thing, however, knowing your triggers and behaviours is only part of change. To change the pattern you need to identify a reward that makes changing your routines worth it. A positive reward, especially an immediate one makes the behaviour stick.
- Replace bad habits with better ones
Change is best made permanent when it’s gradual and relatively easy to do, almost effortless. Rather than trying to eliminate habits, many are more successful in replacing them with something slightly better. For most people the cues will remain the same but changing the resultant routine and identifying a worth-while reward is the key to change.
Using the late-night eating as an example:
When you’re inevitably bored and wander the house, open the cupboard up to healthy snacks instead. Preplanning is important. Instead of having the half-eaten bag of chips sitting there, make it easier to grab a protein bar. It’s a finite amount of food, far lower in calories and will contribute to your protein intake for the day.
It may be 200 calories but it’s far better than the 700 the chips just contributed. (Oh, a serving is only 120 calories? That’s a cute number, especially because it also says it’s only 14 chips and you just ate half the bag.)
Taking it a step further, if you have a serious goal of losing weight or improving your health – throw the junk away. Sure, keep a cheat snack or two but don’t set yourself up for failure. Left over cheese cake? Trash it and keep the celery and Icelandic style yogurt at the front of the fridge. Trade in the creamy-goodness of the Wednesday night cheese cake for a high protein, low calorie snack that won’t derail your progress.
Bonus step: find a hobby that keeps you from boredom and wandering the halls, landing you in the kitchen in the first place or go to bed.
- Keep the habit going
To the best of your ability keep the train rolling when times get tough. Your day may have gone to shit and your hour workout isn’t going to happen. Do 10 minutes of something anyways. It’s much more important to get something done to keep the habit loop intact. Missing one day won’t kill a habit outright but it does signal that it’s ok to break the cycle.
Getting in the 10 minutes will continue to enforce the habit loop and provides a double reward; the usual post-workout reward but also the feeling of overcoming whatever threatened to derail the progress.
Have to eat out based on circumstance? Look for something that closely resembles what you might have eaten anyways. Keep the habit going.
With that said, there are times that you may need a break and that’s ok, but hop back on the train as soon as possible to rebuild the good-habit enforcement.