Breaking up is hard to do with habits

March 19, 2012 —

I’ve been writing about diet and obesity for an upcoming DMU Magazine, which has made me think a lot about habits. Particularly bad ones – like mindlessly eating that bag of potato chips, regularly bingeing on too many desserts or eating those greasy chicken nuggets your kid left on his plate.

New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg has a new book out, The Power of Habit, that explores the science behind our habits. In a recent interviewon WHYY’s “Fresh Air,” he told host Terry Gross that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which involves three parts: First a cue, or trigger, tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold; next is the routine, or the behavior itself; and finally comes the reward, “something that your brain likes that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future,” Duhigg told Gross.

I’m among the people who find buffets a dangerous “cue” for overeating.

The advantage of habits is that because they’re largely automatic, our brains don’t need to think about them much, so we can devote our mental energy on other things. The downside comes when those habits are bad. To help break them, Duhigg says, people should change their environments to change unhealthy cues and break up the patterns they generate. Taking a vacation – spring break, anyone? – is one of the “proven most-successful ways” to do that, he adds.

“If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on vacation – because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”

Having support groups can help, too. Duhigg alleges that Alcoholics Anonymous works because it gives participants a new routine and a roomful of people to reinforce changed behavior especially during those inevitable moments of weakness.

Which makes me think of a great effort our DMU wellness staff has brought to campus, the 10-week “Dump Your Plump” program. Teams of students and employees signed up with pledges to work out at least five days a week, at least 30 minutes per day, and to either maintain or lose weight. The wellness staff encourages strong teamwork to achieve these results, such as organizing one’s team to hit the wellness center together, take group walks outside or regularly use the stairs rather than the elevator.

I like the wise words of a U.S. Army major Duhigg met as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad, where he realized the military “is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.” Developing the right habits soldiers can perform quickly and automatically, from loading their weapons to communicating under fire, is imperative to military operations. That translates both to individuals and even communities, the major told Duhigg.

“You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine,” the major said. “I tell me soldiers all the time, there’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”

What bad habits have you struggled with and then “got right”? What cues and patterns did you have to change, and how did you do so successfully?


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