By Nicole Dennison
“Already, I’m off my diet, skipped exercise class, snacked on chips, and picked up dinner at a fast-food restaurant,” she groaned.
How can the best intentions, the stoutest resolutions, and the firmest convictions fall so quickly by the wayside? Are we simply weak and self-sabotaging?
Why is it so hard to form healthy habits especially when we know as busy professional women that a successful health plan depends on adopting healthy habits and good intentions.
Is there anything we can do to make healthy changes and develop the healthy habits we so desire?
By understanding what a habit is and how it forms.
What is a habit?
A habit is something that you do often or regularly.
What you may not know is how these habits form in the brain.
How are habits formed?
In 2012, Charles Duhigg published The Power of Habit. In it, he explores the neuroscience behind why we do what we do.
What Neuroscientists have discovered is:
- Our habit-making behaviors trace to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.
- Our decision-making process traces to the prefrontal cortex.
Two separate parts of the brain.
The basal ganglia, near the center of your skull, are where emotions, memories, and pattern recognition develops. From an evolutionary perspective, it is one of the oldest parts of our brain.
The prefrontal cortex, the area right behind your forehead, is where thought originates. From an evolutionary perspective, it is one of the newest parts of our brain.
Neurologically what happens is that most behavior originates in the prefrontal cortex as thought. Then, as a behavior becomes a habit, it moves into the basal ganglia where it is automated.
Now that you know what’s happening in the brain, it’s time to introduce you to the ‘habit loop.’
Introducing the habit loop.
The habit loop is a neurological loop that governs any habit. It consists of three components:
Understanding these components is what helps busy professional women change unhealthy habits into healthy ones.
Let’s examine each part of the habit loop:
There’s a cue or trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. It is the stimulus or experience that starts the habit loop.
Example from The Power of Habit: There’s a woman who can’t stop biting her nails even though it causes her much pain and embarrassment. When asked by a therapist when or why she starts biting she describes a tingling sensation in her fingertips. This sensation is the cue.
The first step in changing a habit is to become aware of the cue.
This is the behavior itself that we think of as the habit.
Example from The Power of Habit: When the woman who bites her nails gets bored and feels a tingling in her fingertips her old behavior was to start rubbing her fingertips feeling for bumps or edges. When she found one, she would chew on it and then, on autopilot, proceed to chew every nail on her hand until her nails were completely smooth or completely removed.
The second step in changing a habit is to reprogram the unhealthy habit to do something that is healthier.
When the woman felt the tingling sensation come on (cue), she replaced nail-biting with rubbing her fingers on her arm or table.
This simple change from biting her nails to rubbing her fingertips on another surface was all it took to create a new neural pathway in her brain.
This is something that your brain likes that helps it remember and encode the new habit loop in the future.
Example from The Power of Habit: After a week of not biting her nails, she rewarded herself with a manicure.
The third step in changing a habit is to reward your new healthy habit.
“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” According to behavioral modification researcher Dr. Nathan Azrin.
Still, a nagging question remains, why do people return to their unhealthy habits?
It’s because of the basal ganglia. It stores memories. Therefore, the neural pathways don’t get erased. They remain.
That’s why you hear people say, “Whoops, I forgot and slipped back into my old habits.”
5 Tips for Success
The best way for busy professional women to change an unhealthy habit is to replace it with a new one. That way your brain creates new neural pathways allowing you to use those habits.
Here are five success factors that will help your new habits stick.
1. If you want to make healthy habits stick, you have to love your habits. And you do that by first loving yourself.
2. When you decide to change a habit, make sure you choose your daily thoughts and activities from a place of love, not self-criticism.
It’s so easy to get down on yourself for slipping back into neurological pathways that are unhealthy. Remember, change is a process. Take it one step at a time. Nurture yourself along the way, and healthy habits will soon be automatic.
3. Keep focused on the positive results you want.
Changing a habit requires replacing the old routine with a new one. Sometimes this feels awkward because there are uncomfortable steps to take when choosing new actions that develop into habits that serve you better. Stay focused.
4. You will experience a delightful sensation when you reward yourself each time you make a healthy choice. This is how your neurology learns to encode a new pattern for the future.
This rush of joy will entice you to choose the health habits again and again. And you’ll start to see healthy results.
5. When you love your habits, your new habits will bring your desired results. Your desired results will, therefore, come from your place of love.
Audrey Hepburn said it best: “The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.”
When it comes to making healthy habits stick, it takes more than stout resolutions and firm convictions. To create a new habit that leads to a successful health plan, you’ll need to know how habits form in the brain. You need to know about the habit loop. Read about how it works, what causes us to slip back into unhealthy habits, and discover five tips for success.