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  • Writer's pictureAlex May

Habit Formation

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

It has been said that "most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time." Many of our lifestyle habits are just that- habitual. The more distracted and busier we are we are more likely to fall back on our habits- thats what they are there for after-all! Habits are reflexive subroutines in our brains, used as mechanisms to free up our mental resources. This can work in our favor when it comes to good habits, but can work against us in the case of bad habits. Let's talk a bit more about habits, how they form, and how to change them. (I will focus on eating habits, but these techniques can apply to habits of all kinds).


What are habits & how do they form?

Habits are defined as "learned behavioral responses to situational cues". There are two parts to habit- the cue and the action. The cue can be anything in any context from an emotion/mood (anxiety), a location (in the car), an event (its snowing outside), or even a time (before bed). It just has to be something important that is frequently and consistently encountered in your daily life. A habit forms when you do something over and over again (consciously or unconsciously) in the same context.

How long can a habit take to form you ask? You may have heard it takes 21 days, but it appears that is mostly anecdotal. When actually put to the test the average time for an action to reach automaticity was 66 days. Note that this just the average length, it may take some less or more time for that automaticity to happen. It also may be reassuring to hear that it gets progressively easier with time and if you can maintain your motivation until the habit forms, then they will eventually become second nature.

Habits are propensities to repeat behaviors given the recurring circumstances. As habits form, deliberate decision making recedes and is replaces by reflexive circuits. The strength of habits is also its weakness- the dependence of habits in contextual triggers makes them vulnerable to modification.


Breaking the Bad Habits

What do we do when a bad habit forms? There are two ways to break a bad habit- change the cue or change the action. The most straightforward approach is to try and avoid the situational triggers. This can look like taking a different walking route to avoid the donut shop around the corner, watching movies at home if you're a habitual movie theater popcorn eater- when we remove ourselves from triggering situations we can capitalize on contextual changes to avoid the habitual call-and-response.

In the long run it matters little what we eat on holidays & special occasions- its the day to day that adds up, which is why our eating habits are so important. The strength of habits is also its weakness- the dependence of habits in contextual triggers makes them vulnerable to modification. If you're used to having a cookie every time you see the cookie jar, perhaps consider replacing it with a fruit bowl. Pack healthy snacks while on the go to shift our immediate surroundings to become more conducive to healthy choices.

To change an existing bad habit to a good one (or even establish a new good habit from scratch!) by using a technique known as Implementation Intentions. Instead of vague self-promises to "do our best", implementation intentions are specific if-then plans to perform a particular behavior in a specific context. This looks like "When X situation arises, I will perform a response Y". In real life it may look like "If I get hungry after dinner, I will eat an apple".

In order to break a bad habit or create a new one we have to select a new action (eat an apple) rather than just give up an existing one (don't eat late night cookies). To fully activate the habit-forming mechanism, you need a new alternative response rather than a nonresponse. Some more examples include "If am eating out at lunch, I will order a salad" or "If I am tempted at work with treats in the break room, I will take a walk when I need a break instead".


What Happens When Life Happens?

Inevitably life happens, but the good news is that sporadically missing a day of implementing a new habit resulted in a tiny dip in automaticity the next day, but had no long-term consequences. So if you stumble or forget a day, just pick it back up the next and don't beat yourself up.

Have you ever let yourself indulge a little- and then that turns into a whole day of indulgence by telling yourself "it's too late now, so I might as well enjoy myself, the whole day is lost"? Turns out there is a name for this- the "What-The-Hell Effect". Small goals like promising yourself no more than one cookie a day can sometimes be counterproductive if it is causing you to lose sight of the end goal. In this case a slip up can feel like you've let yourself down and demotivate you into all-or nothing thinking and eat the whole bag.

How do we fight this what-the-hell effect? One way is to choose extending the period of time for the subgoal. So in the above cookie example, a better way to structure the goal would be to commit to having no more than 7 cookies in a week. So if you slip up and have two cookies one day, it's not a failure, you can make it up the next day.

Another technique to stop what-the-helling is to choose acquisitional goals, rather than inhibitional. We seem to be able to better cope with coming up short on positive goals than negative ones. So framing your subgoals as things to accomplish rather than avoid can help prevent you into all or nothing thinking. When we have positive goals we are more likely to think positively and be able to reframe when we slip up, whereas when we violate a negative dont-do-something goal thats when things tend to break loose.


Beware of Self-Licensing

Believe it or not, sometimes meeting a subgoal can blow our end goal through something called "self-licensing". It's when movement towards our goals can justify indulgences that set us further back. This looks like "I worked hard this week, so I deserve it" or "I worked out this morning so I can binge on dessert". People tend to use the occasion of progress as a pretext to indulge.

Self-licensing can also include self-delusion. When people are presented with a temptation, they tend to exaggerate in their minds how well they've been doing on their goals to justify the indulgence. Next time you would like to use this rationalization just take a second to run through your subgoals and double check you have actually made progress instead of letting temptation lead you blindly.

Does this mean we can never indulge? No way, I love my treats too! The key lies in being aware of these excuses and rationalization and being able to recognize them when they are happening and take a moment to think about your goals and progress. Sometimes "cheating" can be beneficial in the long run if overall it help you sustain a healthier lifestyle. The big difference in this is the design- its not cheating if its included in your plan! Those who prearrange to give themselves a certain number of passes each month to skip the gym or eat whatever they want can do so without deceiving themselves, self-licensing, or getting what-the-helled.


Putting Habits to Work

Habits can be a powerful tool in our arsenal for healthy living. They can "automate" the healthy decision making process to make decisions less laborious or difficult. It is important to note the pitfalls that can come with habits, and know the tricks to overcome them. At the end of the day we are all human, slip-ups are inevitable- its how we handle those slip-ups and think critically in those moments that can make the difference. Here at Optimal Hormone Health we can help you create healthy habits through Health Coaching. As a Certified Functional Medicine Health Coach, I can help you create & sustain the health & lifestyle changes you want to make in your life. A lot of my knowledge comes from Dr. Greger, and his is a great resource. Let me know how I can help you!

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