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Habits are Human … How to Break the Bad Ones
Psychology’s new tricks to easing the grip of unhealthy routines 03/13/2014 By Nicole Cohen and Craig Weatherby (editor)
The New Year has come and gone, and with it, your well-intentioned resolutions. 

What sabotaged you wasn't necessarily weakness. More likely, ingrained habits killed those good intentions. 

Fortunately, recent research offers powerful tools for changing habits in ways that yield healthier outcomes.

What is a habit? 
Habits are tiny programs in our brains that run our lives. 

And those habits – the route you took to work, the evening cocktail, and the cuss word you dropped in front of a nun – have little to do with conscious intent. 

In fact, about 40 percent of your daily actions aren't fully conscious decisions. They're habits ... things that your brain does automatically, whether you really decide to or not. 

Together these programs constitute a collection of behaviors that shape your physical, emotional, and financial health. 

The question is, can we reprogram our brains to yield healthier routines … and if so, how? 

What a habit looks like
In his New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores and dissects habits.

As his exploration of recent research showed, a habit can be broken into three parts:
  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward
The cue signals us to perform a routine in order to get a reward. It's a lot like asking your dog to sit. 

He'll sit because he's learned that if he performs the routine of putting his butt on the ground, he'll get a rewarding treat. 

How to change a bad habit
You can't get rid of habits entirely, because they live in our brains forever … in the basal ganglia, if you want to know. 

So instead of trying to totally break a habitual routine, the most realistic and attainable goal is to change the reward associated with it.

For example, say your routine is to come home every day, put on your slippers, and then eat (or drink) something in front of the TV because you find it relaxing.

Your cue is coming home, your routine is the loafing and snacking, and the reward is feeling relaxed. You will always have that cue and the craving to relax.

What you need to do is change that thing in the middle: the routine.

So the new routine might be this: Come home, put on your running shoes, and go for a run.

You will be as relaxed – or more – without downing some not-so-healthy calories.

Charles Duhigg created a nifty flow chart to help you identify the cues and rewards associated with a habit … and create a healthier new routine in response to the cue.

The fun part: How to create a new habit
I saw a hat that said, “Will run for wine.” It was cute, and I know a lot of ladies (okay, me) for whom this is true.

But this hat is more than just a clever albeit kitschsy piece of headgear. It demonstrated in four short words how to create a new habit.

To create or change a habit you need a plan.

If you want to run, create a cue by doing something like setting a reminder on your phone to ding at you when it's time for your run. 

But more than a cue, you need a motivation. You need a reward.

That's when you write out a plan: “When I see the reminder on my phone, I will go for a run, so I can [insert your healthy reward here].”

Anyway, the hat is right. You want to run? You need a reward you can crave.

The really great part is that over time the need for the reward will fade and the action will become the reward.

Your brain won't be craving the wine on Friday. Instead, your brain will be craving the endorphins and other feel-good neurochemicals that the run provides.

And that's when you'll know you've succeeded in creating a new habit. Even better, research shows that the new routine can override the brain-wiring for a bad one.

So instead of being programmed to come home, put on your slippers, and watch The Daily Show while drinking a cartoon-sized glass of chardonnay, you come home, put on your running shoes and dart out the front door.

You do it without thinking because it is your routine. It's your habit. And it's you.

One last thing: Addiction is more than just a habit.

It's a habit matched up with a physical dependency, making it much more difficult to change.

If you think you may have an addiction, then it's time to reach out for professional help.

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  • Hilário MR, Costa RM. High on habits. Front Neurosci. 2008 Dec 15;2(2):208-17. doi: 10.3389/neuro.01.030.2008. eCollection 2008 Dec.
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