Our MetLife 360Health "Habits How-To" series features tips, tricks, and activities to help you establish healthy habits and maintain them in the long run.
If you’re interested in establishing healthy habits, it’s helpful to understand a few basic concepts: The Habit Loop and Motivation
The Habit Loop
A habit is more than the behaviour itself; it actually involves three steps: a cue that triggers the habit, the behaviour itself, and then a reward that reinforces the cycle and makes you consciously or unconsciously want to take that action again when the cue occurs.
When you manipulate your environment to impact the cue that precedes the behaviour or the reward that reinforces it, you can change a habit. Below, you’ll find some simple examples of this.
Have you noticed that understanding and being able to adopt a healthy habit is not always enough to make us do it? Because the drivers of behaviours are more complex than that, whether you feel motivated to adopt a healthy habit also plays a huge role.
Motivation is a very individual thing - what motivates another person may not motivate you. So, it’s important to look inside and focus on the “why” that feels personally relevant to you. Identifying your barriers is important, too: Understanding thoughts, feelings or circumstances that may block your progress is the first step to breaking down those barriers.
Since you need both motivation and ability to adopt a habit, one trick is to start small: When you set out to do something that is very easy you reduce the amount of motivation and ability required to do the behaviour. For example, if you are trying to become a runner, don’t start to run 5kms a day. Aim for a very short run, even just a few minutes a day instead. Getting out the door to run a few minutes requires much less motivation and a much lower fitness level than running 5kms. Eventually, after running a short distance for many days in a row, you will have built a habit of running and you can start to work on slowly increasing your distance.
Here are some proven strategies for changing habits, based on the science of the habit loop and motivation
- To break bad habits, interrupt the cue/behaviour/reward cycle.
Every time I watch a movie (the cue) I grab a packet of chips from the pantry (the behaviour). I’ll move the chips to a different place. So, between the cue and the behaviour there’s a moment to make a more conscious choice about grabbing a healthier snack.
- To adopt a new habit, link something gratifying (a reward) with something that you find hard to do.
I’ll only allow myself to listen to my favourite podcast when I’m exercising. Or only watch my favourite show while folding laundry.
- Create routines and rituals to make the behaviour more automatic.
Find where the new healthy habit can fit into an existing routine and say, “after I [existing routine] I will [new behaviour]”, for example: after I use the bathroom, I will do two pushups. Or, after I turn off the TV, I'll take three calming breaths.
- Have a plan for when you fail, because we’re human and sometimes we’ll get it wrong.
Decide in advance how to get back on track with an “if/then” plan, for example “if I eat junk food at the party, then I will start the day tomorrow with a healthy breakfast”.
- Find a way to make the healthy behaviour require less motivation and ability.
I’ll sleep in my running clothes so it’s easier to get out the door in the morning.
- Commit to something very easy for the first few weeks of adopting a new habit.
If I’m trying to build a habit of mindfulness or meditation, I’m going to start by sitting quietly and breathing for just 1 minute each day.
- Address the specific barriers that are making it hard for you to achieve the healthy habit.
I want to eat more vegetables but I’m afraid of wasting money on produce that will spoil, so I’ll start with buying just one new vegetable a week.
- Be curious and conscious about your “why” – your reason (or motivation) for doing the healthy habit.
I am going to take steps to sleep better because I know that my lack of sleep makes me cranky and it’s effecting my relationship with my partner. I want to have a healthier relationship.
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Sources and Suggested Reading
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by BJ Fogg
- Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood
- Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less by Christine Carter