“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit” is a quote attributed to Aristotle. Every day we are faced with hundreds if not thousands of choices, shall i eat that cream cake? should I skip the gym tonight? And it appears that all we need to do is continually make the right choices and we get who we want to be and when it comes to diet and exercise the right choice is often fairly obvious. Then why then do we repeatedly make the same bad choices that go against our goals and desires and fail to be who we want to be?
The answer is habits! A habit is a “routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.” Even 1 or 2 poor habits with regards to diet and fitness can have extremely damaging effect on the best laid plans.
A book that I read recently covers this topic brilliantly is Charles Duhigg’s “The power of Habits: Why we do what we do in life and business. It looks in to the power of habits and why people keep doing self destructive things. Below is a brief outline of the topics covered that relate to health and fitness.
Duhigg begins with a description of the habit loop- a circular process with 3 stages.
- The Cue: A situational trigger that is based on a reward your seeking.
- The Routine: A physical or emotional action you take to obtain the reward.
- The reward: The satisfaction you seek following the routine.
The key to permanent change is to break down the habit loop into these 3 components. Then when you know why you take a certain action, it becomes easier to substitute this behaviour with a positive change. “To change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
How do we do this? Duhigg provides an excellent framework.
Step 1- Identify the routine: As we now know the habit has 3 main components- the cue, routine and reward. Your goal is to identify how you go from a cue to following a habit that you hate. The more you know about your routine the easier it is to change it.
Step 2- Experiment with rewards.: There is a specific reason why you follow a bad habit, that’s why we must understand the cravings that drive this behaviour. This step looks to identify the actual reason you complete a specific routine. Do you leave the office for a smoke or visit the coffee shop because you crave a cigarette/cake or is it to break up the boredom of the working day. While finding what reward will work as an alternative ask yourself why do I follow the habit? is it from a need to fit in? am I trying to relax? do i get an emotional charge? or am I just hungry? One of the questions you ask yourself could be the real reason why you follow your habit.
Step 3- Isolate the cue: All habits have a trigger that tells the brain that you want a specific reward. The trick is to identify the cue for every action. You can get a lot of insight by answering these 5 questions-
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- What’s your emotional state?
- Who else is around?
- What action precedes the urge?
Write down the answers to these 5 questions every time you experience your habit cue, and you will have some vital information towards making a lasting change.
Step 4- Have a Plan: Now comes the time to change your habit. You can’t control the cue, the reward must stay the same, but what you can change is the routine.
You will need to follow a routine that provides the same reward without following the negative habit. A simple way of doing it is having a specific plan of action whenever you experience a cue.
Use the feedback from the 5 questions and create a step by step blueprint for how to act when you feel the need to follow a bad habit
Example- At roughly 3.30pm you leave your desk on most days and visit the coffee shop and order a medium latte and a cookie, you are looking to lose weight so are getting frustrated by this habit. You answer the questions and try different routines and find that it is a release from boredom and social interaction that’s driving this habit and decide to set an alarm for 3.20pm every day and walk down the hall to your friends office for a 10 min gossip. This gives the brain the same reward that it seeks when the cue is triggered, over time this will replace the old destructive habit.
Things to remember if you want to change a habit-
- Don’t resist craving- redirect it
- Kicking habits is hard due to the rewards at the end of the habit loop
- To replace a bad habit replace with a new routine
- Denying rewards without replacing them leads to frustration.
Developing good habits is the key to making great progress with regards to Health and Fitness goals. Small wins provide impetus for big change and remember that willpower is a finite resource and we cant rely on it alone.
There is plenty more in the book I would thoroughly recommend you have a read and implement some of the advice into your daily routine if you feel there are bad habits affecting your life.