I tried making New Year’s resolutions to eat more healthily, and I fell off track almost immediately. Is there any point in trying to change my bad habits?
Raise your hand if you reach for your phone immediately upon waking up — scrolling through email, Facebook, or Instagram. Or, do you immediately walk to the refrigerator when you walk through the door in the evening? Perhaps second helpings have become the norm, whether or not you’re actually hungry. If you do any of these things, it’s likely you don’t even realize the patterns that are forming. (And there are likely many more!)
These automatic behaviors are what we call habits. At one point, you did this behavior intentionally. Perhaps one day you came home from work starving and went to the refrigerator to get a snack. Maybe it happened again the next day, or a few days later. Those snacks tasted good. Perhaps they took your mind off the day’s stress from the day. So you kept repeating this behavior until one day, it just became habit. You found yourself in front of the fridge even when you weren’t hungry. How did this happen?
The key is to understand what is causing your behavior, not just to identify the behavior. This habit loop can be used to help create positive behaviors, not just stop negative ones.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, we form habits based on a cue and reward system. His habit loop includes three steps: the cue, the routine, and the reward. In the refrigerator example above, the cue could be walking in the door after work. The routine is going to the refrigerator, and the reward is a tasty snack, satisfying hunger, or stress relief (or possibly a combination of all three). Understanding the cue and reward system is the first step to changing a behavior. Duhigg recommends first figuring out what exactly the reward is by replacing the routine action with something else to determine if you experience the same reward. Once you determine the reward, isolate the cue. Are you actually hungry every day the minute you walk in the door, are you stressed, or is the cue just walking in the door? Once you have determined the cue, Duhigg recommends setting a plan.
Let’s say that the cue is walking in the door and the reward is stress relief. Instead of heading for the refrigerator, your plan would be to walk in the door, put on your sneakers, and go for a walk. The key is to understand what is causing your behavior, not just to identify the behavior.
This habit loop can be used to help create positive behaviors, not just stop negative ones. To develop long-lasting positive behaviors, use the following strategies:
- Choose a realistic behavior to change: If you don’t currently exercise at all, setting a goal to go to the gym every day of the week is likely not realistic. Instead, you might set a goal to go three times per week for the next month and then reassess. Read more about setting SMART goals here.
- Break it down: Focus on a small behavior, even if it’s part of a larger goal. For example, your long-term goal might be weight loss, but there are a lot of behaviors that contribute to weight management. Instead of overhauling every aspect of your life, start small. This could be eating breakfast every day.
- Create a cue: If your goal is to drink 8 glasses (or 64 ounces) of water per day, your cue might be keeping a reusable water bottle with you at all times. Cues can be anything from time of day to environment or specific object.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat: Repeating a behavior, whether positive or negative, is how it becomes habitual, or automatic. There doesn’t appear to be an agreed upon amount of time that it takes people to create habits, but repetition is key (you didn’t get to raiding the fridge daily without repeating the behavior consciously).
- Be prepared: Successfully changing one behavior might actually require putting other behaviors into place. For example, if you are aiming to eat a healthy snack in the afternoon to avoid those pre-dinner munchies, you will need to have healthy snacks on hand, which requires a trip to the grocery store and preparing those healthy snacks. So, instead of focusing just on the healthy snack, your behavior might be that it’s Sunday, and it’s time to go to the grocery store and prep healthy snacks for the week.
- Create accountability: Whether it’s asking a family member to hold you accountable or actually hiring a professional such as a personal trainer or dietitian, giving yourself external accountability can help you stay on track in the beginning when your behavior is not yet a habit.
- Set yourself up for success: Create an environment that is conducive to completing your desired behavior. As Brian Wansink describes in his book Slim by Design, simple cues in a kitchen environment can make or break your habits. For example, having chips or sweet cereal on your counter makes you more likely to eat them. But so does having fruit! Want to start snacking on fruit instead of chips? Put fruit in a prominent location in your kitchen or refrigerator and hide the chips on a top shelf (or better yet, don’t buy them).
Making lasting behavior changes takes time and effort, but we are, as they say, creatures of habit, after all so a little effort can go a long way!
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org