Can You Really Change Old Habits?

Have you ever gotten into a rental car that is a different make and model from your daily driver and your hand is poised to turn the key in the ignition but there’s no key?  And you’re looking at your hand like, ‘hey, how’d you get here?’  Or the opposite happens where your daily driver is a push-button start and you get into a car that requires a key – what happens?  Like an idiot, you press a button-less dashboard and wonder why the car won’t start. Here’s another one.  A friend of mine told me that every day when she gets home from work the first thing she does is go to the bathroom.  One day, on a non-workday, she’d gone to the grocery store and when she got home, she headed straight for the bathroom but realized she had no idea why.

These are all examples of habits.  We like to think that our days are filled with well-considered choices, but they’re not, they are filled with habits.  I’ve been reading the book, The Power of Habit, and in it, the author defines habit as ‘the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.  Take wearing your seat belt as an example.  When you first started driving, your parents and teachers probably harped on you to wear your seatbelt even if you aren’t the one driving.  That first time you got behind the wheel of the car to drive yourself somewhere, you likely made a conscious decision to buckle your seatbelt and then the next several times you got into the car you continued making that choice.  After a while, it became a habit that you didn’t even have to think about.  Side note, if you don’t wear your seatbelt every time you get into the car, stop being an idiot and start wearing it.

Our brains are incredibly powerful and are always looking for ways to become more efficient.  This is why scientists believe habits develop – when the brain creates habits out of everyday routines, it doesn’t have to work as hard.  And friends, habits are powerful!  Let me share an example with you.  In the book, On Combat, there is an entire chapter about muscle memory aka habits.  Two men who are in the police academy buddy up to practice disarming one another.  The first guy would take away the gun of the second guy, hand the gun back to him, and the second guy would then take his turn.  They would do this over and over until it became second nature.  Any guesses what happened next?  When the first guy got out into the field, he was called to a convenience store that was being robbed.  After all his practice, he successfully disarmed the robber.  And then he handed the guy’s gun right back to him.  This clearly shows just how powerful habits can be – obviously, the police officer didn’t mean to give the robber his gun back, but because that’s how he practiced disarming someone, his auto-response took over.  Insane, right?  Let’s look at a less lethal example.

Think about getting dressed in the morning.  When you put on a pair of pants, do you think about which leg goes in first?  Or shoes and socks.  Do you look at your feet and decide the left one looks especially pretty today so it gets the sock first?  If you do, there’s probably a group for you.  For most everyone else, these are automatic routines that we don’t even have to think about.  Or brushing your teeth.  Do you put the toothbrush into your mouth before you apply the toothpaste?  Guessing no.  If you had to think about these choices every day all day, you’d never get anything else done.  So, let’s break it down.

Think of habits as a loop.  First, there’s a cue.  This is a trigger that puts your brain on autopilot and decides which habit to use.  Next comes an action or routine, which can be physical or emotional.  Finally, the reward closes the loop, which helps your brain determine if this particular loop is worth remembering for next time.  Let’s go back to the example of brushing your teeth.  Before heading to bed, you know you need to brush – going to bed is the trigger.  Then you brush your teeth – this is the routine.  When you’re done your mouth feels clean and your breath fresh – this is the reward.  This loop that helps us create good habits is also the one that helps us create bad habits like smoking cigarettes or overeating.  For me, my eating trigger tends to be boredom.  I get bored, I wander to the kitchen, the next thing I know I’m eating.  Emotions can also trigger this loop for me.  As time goes by, the reward turns into a craving.  This is what makes cues and rewards work.

The good news is that habits aren’t set in stone.  As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Thousands of studies have been done on habits and how they work, which is why we now know about the cue, routine, reward loop.  The key to changing a habit is not changing the cue or reward, but the routine.  I’m always going to get bored, but by recognizing the cue, I can change the routine of going into the kitchen with something else entirely like stretching, or grabbing a book, or going for a walk.  And the reward is still the same – as far as my brain knows.  However, simply changing the routine isn’t going to solve the problem.  There is another component you have to commit to in order to make a habit change, and that is belief.

In The Power of Habit book, there’s a section that talks about Alcoholics Anonymous.  AA has been around for decades and has helped millions of people get sober.  It does this by replacing old habits with new ones; by identifying cues and choosing new routines.  However, if you look at the 12 steps, there is an element of belief; belief in a higher power.  For some, that higher power is God.  Research has shown that people can get sober by replacing routines, but that only takes a person so far because once something traumatic or catastrophic happens – many alcoholics start drinking again no matter how many new routines they’ve practiced.  However, those who believe in a higher power are much more likely to make it through stressful situations and stay sober.  Along with this belief also comes a sense of community.  This is why AA meetings have such value – there is value in community.  When a person walks into an AA meeting and hears the story of someone who is clean and sober, they think, “look at that girl, she’s gotten clean, guess I could do it too.”  This is why I decided to hire a therapist – a community doesn’t have to be tons of people, it just has to be more than one person.

What habits are you looking to change?  Maybe you want to quit smoking.  Or, maybe you want to train for a marathon.  Or maybe you’re like me and you want to get a handle on your eating habits.  The first step is recognizing the cues and rewards and then changing the routine.  You must also believe you can do it – believe in yourself, believe in a higher power, and find a group of people to help hold you accountable.  As always, I’m here for you.  I’ll be your community if you need it.

Leave a Reply