If you’re struggling with the idea of creating a healthier home, or eating better or starting an exercise routine, it turns out that a big part of the solution is pretty simple and can be summed up in one word: habit. Our lives are defined but what come to be our habits. That’s why being selective about them is so important!
The reason we end up doing these things in the same way every time is because it uses less brain power to do so. It turns out that a habit is a pathway you have stamped out for yourself… literally. Neuroscientists have found that the more you do a task, the stronger the neural pathway will be in your brain for this activity. This means it’s literally easier for you to keep repeating a habit – good or bad – than to do something new. The good news is that if you’re able to turn a healthy lifestyle choice into a habit, it will not be a struggle anymore, just a well-worn pathway. You just do it, you don’t have to convince yourself or have an internal dialogue about it.
To replace a bad habit with a better one, there are a few things to consider:
1) Deprivation doesn’t work. If chocolate is your achilles heel, telling yourself “I really have to stop eating chocolate!” is actually only reinforcing the chocolate habit in your brain, because you’re still thinking about it, focusing on it.
2) Adding a positive habit is a good way to start getting rid of a bad one. Instead of telling yourself you’re not allowed to eat carbs anymore, ever again, instead try adding more vegetables and protein to your meals. Create a new healthy habit and your older “bad” habits will begin to lose their power.
3) Recognize your triggers and rewards. Sometimes what is rewarding in a habit isn’t the thing in itself. Having a cigarette break, for instance, might come with getting out into the sun, chatting with friends or strangers. The outdoor break and social interaction may be just as rewarding for you as the cigarette itself. How can you get those good benefits in a healthier way? And what is triggering your need for the habit in the first place?
Does it sounds too easy? Maybe, but it works. At the beginning of 2015, I took stock and realized I’d created some good habits for myself over the last year using the above approach:
Despite my love of reading literature, I hadn’t read a book in months and felt that I just couldn’t find the time. But I did have time to watch TV shows or a movie almost every night! I kept making excuses for myself. What was my reward with TV? Relaxation, taking a break from reality. Reading could do this for me too. I finally decided to have a reading night every once in a while. At first it was uncomfortable… it would be easier to just watch something. But after just one time forcing myself to read instead of watch, the next times were easier and easier.
My yoga practice, while I enjoyed it, still required me to check the schedule, see who was teaching, maybe think about going to another studio, and then decide whether I would finally end up going or not. That was a lot of mental effort, so much so that sometimes I ended up missing class. Luckily I found a few classes that I really love at a nearby studio, and so I decided to stop trying to force myself to go everyday and to instead just go to these few that I love. Now going to these classes is such a habit that if some social engagement comes up, it’s an effort for me to not go to yoga.
Another “better” habit I am happy to have cultivated is cutting down on social media time. When you are working from home it can be easy to fall into the social media rabbit hole in the name of “research.” Social media can give you the feeling that you are doing something yet leave a very dissatisfying feeling when you suddenly realize you’ve spent an hour scrolling. To me it feels very much like cluttering my mind… each individual thing may be important or interesting, but when you put them all together you can’t really deal with them. Now I give myself a few minutes to check in only at designated times of the day and otherwise keep facebook closed.
I’m quite sure that if you let this info sink in, you will be able to use it to create better habits in your life too. Opening your windows every morning for just 15 minutes, folding down your bed covers to air out your bed, these are simple habits that you can adopt into your everyday routine to make your home healthier. If your eating habits aren’t nourishing you, try cooking with fresh food on the stove instead of depending on microwavable meals and takeout. All it takes is one time to start putting down a new pathway in your brain!
Most of this great info on habits I first learned from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” If I’ve made you curious about how to harness habit for good in your life, you should probably check it out!