December 17, 2015

“Habits are like cobwebs at first, cables at last.”

In my last blog, I talked about goal setting and how important goals are in creating the changes in your life you want and desire. Goal setting is an active process in which you create planned actions toward a pre arranged or determined outcome. It requires thinking and planning. Habits, on the other hand, are automatic once they are formed.They guide how we get dressed, go to sleep, how we work and whether we choose to exercise after or read the paper. Habits are subconscious. We just do it. Our daily lives are really run by a mass of habits. Those habits are important because they give us the ability to create actions without having to think about them. They allow us to run on autopilot.

Habits are what allow us to take the goals we set consciously and through consistent practice turn them in to automatic actions. If you believe you can change, and goal set to create a vision of what you want, habits are what make the change become a reality. Who we are and who we become depends largely on our beliefs. They determine how we feel, what we think, the goals we pursue and the actions we take. We choose what we choose based on our beliefs. Simply said, “If you don’t believe in the possibility for change, then change is not a possibility.”

The writer David Foster once told a funny story to his graduate students of two young fish swimming along in a lake when an older fish passes them going the other way. He says to them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish swim on a bit and then one looks at the other and says…”What the hell is water?” Water in this case is like our habits…the unthinking choices, invisible actions and personal beliefs which shape our performance every day.  It is the invisible pool we bathe in. Habits help determine whether we sink or swim.

In the book, Habits by Charles Duhigg, the author points out how a habit works. He describes habits as being constructed of a consistent loop of activity. This loop can be broken down into three main steps:

1. A cue:  The thing that ignites the habit
2. A routine:  The action that constitutes the habit
3. A reward: What you get when you run the routine. External rewards like “I burned 1550 calories” or “I accomplished my weight loss goal this week” or “because of my work I received a bonus” are the tangible things we are aware of. The body responds to these external awards with its own internal reward system. The body releases chemicals (neuropeptides) that can make you feel good when you accomplish something.

It turns out that we humans are not all that different from our early ancestors. Though our brains have become bigger and more complex, the function of our brains is to help us survive and thrive. Our brains and bodies have a built in reward system that kicks in to create physical sensations of pleasure when we accomplish what we set out to do. We possess our own pharmacy of drugs on board that can be utilized to help create strong, efficient and effective habits.

Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy said, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking.” That is the key. If you know that a habit is made up of a loop, then the key is to create the loop and run it enough times until it runs by itself. It may seem simple, but once you are aware of the science of how your brain and body create a habit, you are halfway toward the changes you desire.

Duhigg states, “The truth is the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

The key steps are:

1. Identify the routine: What triggers your present habits? Pick a bad one. What is the cue? Is it hunger, boredom, fatigue, anger? Is it the time of day or where you are at the time? Or is it the burst of energy you get from drinking that double caramel macchiato?

2. Experiment with the rewards: The rewards I’m talking about here are based on the feelings that performing the habit create. We have on board in our brains a bunch of chemicals called neuropeptides which, when released from our brain, make us feel good. For example, the pituitary gland, a small pea sized gland that hangs from the base of the brain, releases a morphine-like substance call endorphin. This chemical is responsible for blocking pain when we are in a fight or flight situation. It also plays a role in the reward system of the brain. When you exercise, for example, you may be rewarded by a blast of endorphin which can create the “runner’s high.” Serotonin is a brain chemical that is released in the brains nerve cells…a neurotransmitter. This human chemical is responsible for creating good feelings of satisfaction and achievement after completing a goal.

These chemical blasts occur as a result of certain behaviors. They are powerful because they satisfy our cravings.  We are often not conscious of the rewards that create a craving. Fortunately you can experiment with different rewards based on the cravings you have. We crave things because they offer us something: escape, relaxation, companionship, pleasure, emotional release, escape. For example, let’s say every day you stop at Starbuck’s for the double caramel macchiato before you go to work. The next day as part of the experiment, you drive your daughter to school instead. Or you go to Starbucks in the Safeway and order a regular drip coffee. What you choose to do instead of the double caramel macchiato isn’t important. What is important is the testing of different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving the routine. Is it the sugar kick you get with the macchiato? In that case a bold caffeinated coffee may also do the trick with fewer calories. Or is it the drive to take your mind off the work day ahead? In that case, driving your daughter to school accomplishes the same thing with fewer calories.

3. Isolate the cue: Why do we do the habitual things we do? Why do we grab a glass of wine when we get home from work? Why do we check our Facebook page when we are waiting for a friend to arrive at a restaurant? We know now that these actions are based on cravings. The craving is to receive a reward for the behavior. If we want to create better habits, it is important to be able to zero in on the cues that lead to unwanted behavior.  Self control often disappears when confronted with stress, uncertainty, fatigue and boredom. The key then is to develop willpower. And the key to making willpower into a habit is by anticipating the challenges in advance. By doing so, you can create a pre-planned playbook of actions to replace your old patterns. So if I know that because I am tired and stressed after a day at work (cue) I will grab a glass of red wine once I get home (routine) to get the feeling of relaxation I crave (reward), I can choose a new routine like going for a walk instead which leads to a feeling of being refreshed.

Every one of us is driven by habits. Most of them are created subconsciously and as a result we are unaware of them. I have shared with you invaluable information that can help you change old habits and create new, more powerful ones. If you are interested in more information on this, visit our website and click on the free webinar tab.

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