How many times have you said to yourself, “I’m going to eat right, exercise every day, go to bed early, save and budget my money."? How many times has that actually happened or lasted for longer than a week? Chances are you are like 96 percent of the population who have set resolutions and have not achieved them.
There are a few reasons why this happens. First, it is hard to change. We are creatures of habit, and our brains have evolved to automate things to simplify life. It takes enormous effort to go against the routine your brain has become comfortable with.
The good news is that change is possible. Studies show it takes about sixty-six days to make a new behavior a habit. So, what is a habit? Habits consist of four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward. Understanding what a habit is and how it works can help us change it.
The first stage is the cue. A cue signals your brain to initiate a behavior. It could be visual (seeing a favorite fast food restaurant), a location (walking into the kitchen), a smell, a sound (alarm clock)—anything that triggers a craving.
Cravings are the second stage in the habit loop. They are the reason you act on the impulse. Without a craving or desire to act, we wouldn’t follow through on the impulse. We don’t crave the action itself, but the feeling it provides. For example, you don’t crave the act of brushing your teeth. You desire the feeling of a clean mouth. Every craving we have is linked to a desire to change our internal state. This is a key point when trying to create new routines and habits.
The third stage is the response. This is the actual habit or behavior you perform. Whether or not you fulfill the response depends on how much effort is required. If you crave a fit body, but the effort to go running every day is too much, you won’t run. So, when trying to create a new health routine, keep this step in mind and make new behaviors as effortless as possible. For instance, if you want a better body, but running is too much effort, take a fifteen-minute walk instead. Reducing the amount of effort to start a new behavior is one of the best ways to make it stick.
The last stage is the reward. A reward is the end goal for every habit. Think of rewards as instant relief from the craving. Rewards tend to be oriented toward short-term gratification, which is why rewards don’t always put us on the path toward our long-term health goals. If you crave a doughnut and the reward is instantly tasting the delicious glaze, you will forgo your long-term goal of losing weight to satisfy the immediate reward of sweet pleasure in your mouth.
Rewards close the habit loop and complete the cycle. Therefore, when starting a new routine, you must always create new rewards for yourself. Instead of stopping bad habits or old behaviors, find substitutes. You must find a new reward for previous cues and cravings. If you crave a pumpkin latte every time you drive by Starbucks, try substituting a new response and reward. Order the chai tea so you still feel the reward of having a warm cup in your hand. If you can create substitutes that still satisfy the reward part of the loop, it’s less likely that you will act on the bad habit.
Remember, if you can make the new habit as simple and easy as possible, you are more likely to fulfill the behavior. Don’t start with a goal of running ten miles every day if you haven’t even run one mile yet. Make the new habit so effortless that you can’t say no. If you want to eat healthier, start with the goal of eating one more serving of vegetables a day. Keep it simple until you are a master of that habit, then you can expand from there.
Create substitutes for your biggest cravings. If you want to quit smoking, it is best to find some other behaviors that will satisfy that craving instead. Maybe have a piece of gum to relieve the oral fixation or start knitting to occupy your hands for a while. When you substitute another reward, the chances of sticking to your new healthy routine are much better.