Habit And Environment

It is estimated that about half of everything we do over the course of a day is habitual. Most of our health decisions aren't really decisions at all: they are simply habit. 

A habit has three parts. It is set in motion by what is called a trigger, or cue. Triggers are all around us, but mostly go unnoticed. A trigger can be something in your environment, an event, a time of day, or even an unconscious thought. It prompts a behavior, and over time, if the pair is repeated, the trigger becomes strongly associated with the behavior, which becomes a habit.

For example, let's say you have a stressful day at work and decide to reward yourself with a delicious croissant from the bakery you pass on the way to the subway. Do this a few more times, and you'll find yourself craving that croissant as the end of the workday approaches, before it is even a conscious thought.

The second part of a habit's anatomy is called the routine. In the example above, the routine would be stopping for (and eating!) that croissant after work.

The third part of a habit is the reward. Guess what the reward would be in our croissant example? Croissants are indeed a pretty powerful reward. But the reward piece of a habit can be more complicated than you'd think. For instance, to change this habit, you'd need to find something that gives you the same reward as the croissant. It might simply be the burst of feel-good hormones you get from the sugar and fat in the pastry. But it might also be a more general feeling of indulgence, or the decompressing time you spend between work and the subway chatting with a friendly cashier at the bakery. 

Together, the trigger, routine, and reward make up the habit loop

  The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

To change a habit, or make a new one, you need to identify or create the pieces of this loop. In the example above, perhaps you set an alarm on your phone for the end of the workday to remind (trigger) you to walk a different route to the subway, one that does not pass the bakery, and for every day you successfully do this you reward yourself by putting $2 in a jar to go toward buying new clothes. Or maybe you find what works is creating a new habit of a planned indulgence, setting a calendar reminder for an hour before you leave for the day, and then treating yourself to a few squares of dark chocolate, consuming 15g of carbs instead of the 30 in the croissant. 

Making and breaking habits is hard work. You absolutely will slip up and go back to the old, familiar habit. That's okay! Study after study shows that, when it comes to habits, consistency beats perfection. The important thing is that you return to the new habit after a slip, not that you never slip at all.

The other thing that makes habits tricky is that they're, well, automatic. To address bad habits, you have to identify what is triggering them, and that can take some digging. This often means taking a close look at your environment, and how it is triggering you to make certain decisions, particularly when it comes to food. Companies work very hard to understand habits, and how to trigger you to feel "faux hunger." I talk much more about this, and environment in general, in the book. In short, setting yourself up for success means making sure your environments support the lifestyle you want to create. It's easier to break a habit of Netflix-fueled evening snacking, for instance, if you keep all the snacks in a high cupboard in the kitchen, and perhaps start watching TV in a different room than usual (as far from the kitchen as possible).

Habits can be nested within other habits, and forming new ones often involves many other tasks you have to plan for. A bad habit of grabbing a donut for breakfast may be less about the donut and more about the fact that you wake up late every morning. A typical "diet" book might tell you to swap the donut for eggs in the morning, but until you address your chronic lateness, you're not going to have much luck with that. And once you do address your late wake-ups (do you need a different alarm? to go to bed earlier?), building a new habit of making eggs for breakfast still requires you to plan: to have eggs and other ingredients on hand, to fit cooking into your morning routine, and so on.

The good news is that you can absolutely change any habit, or create any habit, that you please.

Below is the Habit Change Key, included in the book as a worksheet. Jot these questions down, answer them, and you are well on your way.

The Habit Change Key

Identify the habit you want to change: _____________________________________________

Figure out the trigger setting the habit in motion: _____________________________________________

Identify the reward you are getting from that habit: _____________________________________________

Create a new trigger: _____________________________________________

Insert a new routine: _____________________________________________

Identify whether your routine is supplying the same or an equally desirable reward,
and what that reward is: _____________________________________________

List the tasks you will need to complete before you kick off this new habit:

_____________________________________________

_____________________________________________

_____________________________________________

 

WORDS OF LIZDOM

ACHIEVING SUCCESSFUL, LASTING WEIGHT LOSS IS LIKE BUILDING A HOUSE, OR KEEPING A CIRCUS TENT ALOFT, OR PLAYING A GAME OF JENGA—GO AHEAD, PICK YOUR METAPHOR! THE FORMULA FOR HABIT CHANGE IS YOUR FOUNDATION, AND STRESS, SLEEP, HYDRATION, NUTRITION, EXERCISE, AND MOVEMENT ARE ALL VITAL STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS, BRACED BY AND SUPPORTING EACH OTHER. OVERLOOK OR WEAKEN ANY ONE OF THEM AND THE WHOLE THING COULD TOPPLE OVER.