Habit Change: The Habit Loop

This is the 3rd installment in my 4-part Habit Change series:

  1. An Introduction
  2. The Stages of Change 
  3. The Habit Loop (this post)
  4. SMART Goals 

“Willpower-based strategies may work in the very short term, but there is a reason that gyms are crowded in January and empty in March. Willpower doesn’t change behavior over the long term.“ - Dr. Jud Brewer

It’s now the middle of February. If you made New Year’s resolutions and haven’t stuck with them, you’re not alone.

If sheer willpower works for you, there’s nothing wrong with that. If pushing through helps you reach your goals and change unwanted habits, then stick with it. But for many people, a major guilt trip sets in when they “fall off the wagon.” And these feelings of shame and failure are powerful and can impede our progress.

One of the most popular and well recognized slogans for motivation is Just Do It! The message is, “What are you waiting for? It’s simple. Just get off your butt and do it.”

Slogans like this can be motivating at first. But as Dr. Brewer says, “Willpower doesn’t change behavior over the long term. It doesn’t undo old habits, it just masks them for a while. And then when you get hungry, angry, lonely, tired, anxious, or just plain stressed…poof, the old habits come roaring back.”

Who here has been hungry, angry, lonely, tired, anxious, or stressed lately?

As explained in the first installment in this Habit Change series, changing habits, sticking with resolutions, and following through with stated intentions can be greatly impacted by our existing cognitive and physical health. Cognitive challenges, autoimmune conditions, leaky gut, hormonal imbalances, mold illness, etc., can all work against our emotions, motivation, and ultimately our success, even when it’s these very imbalances and health conditions that we want to improve and reverse.

So, how do we stay motivated if the deck is seemingly stacked against us?

Remember, as you slowly heal your brain and body, your motivation will gain strength and the goals you have set for yourself will be easier to achieve. Trust me.

The Habit Loop
Also know there’s a significant neurological force than can make change challenging. It’s called The Habit Loop. But the good news is that we can flip The Habit Loop on its head and get it to work in our favor. Keep reading!

When we attempt to change a habit, we’re fighting an evolutionarily-conserved learning process. It goes back to one of the most basic nervous system responses known to humans. It’s also referred to as positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive and negative reinforcement shape our behavior. Khan Academy, which is a wonderful platform for visual and auditory learners, has a great 7-minute video explaining operant conditioning, also known as positive and negative reinforcement.

The Habit Loop is made up of 3 parts: trigger, behavior, reward.

For our ancestors, this process was important for their survival.

  • See food = calories, survival (trigger)
  • Eat food (behavior/routine)
  • Feel good (reward)
  • Repeat

The brains of our ancestors said, “Remember what you’re eating and where you found it.”

Survival.

Because our brains are adaptive and creative, we’ve found other ways to use this process. The brain says, “The next time you feel badly, why don’t you try eating something tasty so you’ll feel better?” It’s the same process, just a different trigger.

See food (for survival), eat food, feel better, repeat and…feel bad, eat food, feel better, repeat.

Both are habit loops. Instead of hunger coming from our stomachs, an emotional hunger triggers the urge to eat.

This process applies to any habit that makes us feel good, whether the behavior is good or bad for us. So, how do we make this habit loop work for us?

Dr. Brewer suggests we start with being curious, by paying attention to and being mindful of our behavior. Most of us are on auto-pilot when it comes to our bad habits. But if you think about it, our good habits are on auto-pilot, too. How many of us put much thought into brushing our teeth?

Ryan Niemiec, author of Mindfulness & Character Strengths, discusses the habitual mind. He writes that our minds can process about 7 things at once, including sounds, odors, images, and emotions. It’s been estimated it takes just one-eighteenth of a second to process each item. The result is 126 pieces of information every second (half a million per hour).

The majority of our thoughts are the same as yesterday. Our habitual mind is simply recycling old thoughts, difficult interactions, painful memories, or mundane and trivial experiences. Meditation teachers often refer to our mind’s ability to hop around from thought to thought as “monkey mind.” At times, our minds are like a group of monkeys in the trees, chattering about as they randomly hop from branch to branch.

Think of a habit you’d like to change. Keep it in mind as you read through the steps listed below.

As an example, I’m going to use the goal of reducing sugar in my diet.

  • Step 1: Develop an awareness of the triggers, behaviors, and results of our habits so we can understand why we mindlessly repeat them.
  • Step 2: Examine the results of the habit. Ask what do I get from this? Is it actually rewarding?
  • Step 3: Find the “bigger, better offer” that’s more rewarding than the habit you want to change.

My kryptonite, my Achilles heel, has always been sugar—liquid sugar specifically. This addiction began early, right out of the womb to be exact. Over time, soda became my “drug of choice” and for 20 years it was my go-to. Soda is cheap and it works fast! My energy and mood were almost immediately improved. You can read more about my struggle here.

Over the years, I learned how absolutely detrimental soda was to my health—my physical health as well as my mental health. And I knew I needed to give it up. Using Dr. Brewer’s method, I gave up soda and whenever I’d go back to drinking it, I’d use the method again.

  • Step 1: When would I drink soda? When I was hungry, angry, sad, or stressed. My ADD made it difficult to organize healthful meals to stay full. Moving frequently, raising kids, and caring for sick, aging parents meant I was hungry, angry, sad, or stressed almost all the time.
  • Step 2: What did I get from this? Almost immediate relief. It lifted my mood and gave me energy. What I ignored was that the relief didn’t last and was causing health and other mood issues. Was it actually rewarding? Yes, in the short term, but to the detriment of my health, success, and relationships.
  • Step 3: Because soda can increase insulin, influence atherosclerosis, contribute to strokes, convert the fructose to belly and liver fat (1), and is linked to obesity (2), I felt strongly that soda could not continue to be my reward. The “bigger, better offer” was to eat more healthful food so I could maintain my blood sugar, for one, which greatly helped stabilize my mood and energy.

After thinking through this process, my goals became centered around eating more nutrients for my brain and body. Most of my calories had been consumed through liquid sugar, so I created habits around eating breakfast instead of drinking breakfast.

It worked. It still works whenever I relapse to using soda for energy.

  • Get out of bed, take supplements (trigger)
  • Eat breakfast (behavior)
  • Feel energetic and in control of my mind and choices (reward)
  • Repeat

The prefrontal cortex, the youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective, understands on an intellectual level that certain behaviors harm our health. The prefrontal cortex tries to use cognitive control—it tries to use thinking (willpower if you will) to control our behavior. This is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed.

When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, you can imagine how easy it is to fall back into our old habits. This is where paying attention, developing awareness, asking why, and using curiosity help us get back on track.

The next time you fall back into old habits, ask why. What changed? What’s triggering my behavior? The more we practice this awareness, the more disenchanted we’ll become with our behavior and we’ll get back on track quicker and easier.

This process is best described by Dr. Brewer himself. His TED talk has almost 9 million views. This is a 10-minute video that expertly explains how and why we mindlessly repeat the same actions over and over and that the same habit loop that drives our bad habits can be used to drive good habits.

Part 2 of this Habit Change series started with the quote, “Pain pushes until vision pulls.” And as you practice using The Habit Loop for goal-setting and you start to achieve even small successes, you’ll be pulled toward more healthful choices. Again, you can trust me on this.

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