Topics » In The Kitchen » The Scoop on the Habit Loop – How to Create Healthy Habits
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
The Scoop on the Habit Loop - How to Create Healthy Habits

The following is an excerpt from HEALTHY AS F*CK (2019, Sourcebooks) by Oonagh Duncan.

Think of all the habits you currently have and how much effort they take. Is it a huge pain to brush your teeth every day? Do you have to force yourself to take a shower? Do you have to motivate yourself to put on your seat belt in the car? Get inspired to check your email? Nah. I’m guessing this stuff happens no matter what. You’d have to try not to do them.

Imagine what a pain life would be if you had to muster up the motivation to do that routine stuff every day. It would be impossible. We wouldn’t get anything else done, which is why our brain is constantly scanning for routine behaviors that it can automate to save us the mental energy. It’s estimated that about 40 to 45 percent of our actions are habits that we don’t even think about. And just in case you don’t have a PhD in fractions—that’s, like, a lot of your life.

Bottom line: If your habits suck, you are going to feel sucky. Sucking will be your automatic default mode. If your habits rule, then you are going to feel like a queen. Being awesome will be your automatic default mode.

If you want results, stop messing around with trendy diets and counting net carbs and instead focus on getting control of your habits, because they are running the show.

The first step in changing your habits is to understand how they work. Habits are, almost by definition, mindless, which means that most of us are completely unaware of most of our habits.

To become aware of our habits and wake up to what we are actually doing for 45 percent of our lives, it’s important to understand that habits don’t exist in isolation. They are prompted by a trigger and finished with a reward of some kind. Here’s how it works:

First, you have the Trigger: This is what sets you off. It could be a time of day (3:00 p.m. cookie craving, anyone?), a person (we all have that friend who makes us drink a bit more wine than we should), a place (mom’s house = comfort-food party time), or an emotional state (bad day at work = Bacardi night at home).

Then, you have the Behavior: This is the actual habit. Habits can be super simple (like covering your mouth when you cough or turning up the volume on the radio whenever “Hungry Like the Wolf” comes on). Or habits can be pretty complex (like driving home from work or cooking a meal that you’ve made a thousand times before).

Then, you have the Reward: This is the positive feeling you get from executing your habit. It could be physiological (like my beloved caffeine rush when I have my morning coffee) or psychological (like a feeling of anxiety relief when you check your email).

This Trigger-Behavior-Reward sequence is known as the habit loop. It’s a loop because every time you experience the reward after performing a habit, it strengthens the relationship between the trigger and the behavior.

This Trigger-Behavior-Reward sequence is known as the habit loop.

I’ll give you a few examples that relate to weight loss and fitness:

Trigger: You finally get the kids to sleep.
Behavior: You drink a glass of wine in front of the TV with your partner.
Reward: You experience feelings of connection, physical relaxation, and unwinding.

Trigger: It’s 6:00 a.m. on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
Behavior: You attend your boot-camp class.
Reward: You get exercise-induced endorphins (that’s the happy drug in your brain) and feelings of self-satisfaction.

As you can see, your habits can work for you or against you.

Now that we are aware of the habit loop and how these behaviors get rooted in our brains, let’s first smack down a bad habit. I’ll use unconscious snacking as an example. Obviously there are worse habits out there—and as far as vices go, this is so tame that even your grandmother is bored. But if you are eating unconsciously, eventually your super hawt navel piercing is going to get buried in your belly, and I’m guessing you don’t want that. So let’s tackle the snack monster right at the root source—your brain. In order to kill a bad habit, you have to interrupt the habit loop repeatedly until it’s no longer an automated stimulus and response. We can do that by interrupting either the trigger, behavior, or reward.

I recommend working backward and first figuring out what reward you are getting from this habit. What is the need you are filling by wandering to the fridge? Are you looking for an energetic boost? Are you just bored and looking to do something with your hands? Are you avoiding doing something else that is uncomfortable? Are you feeling down on yourself and need to feel loved and treated? Once you’ve figured out the need you are trying to fill from this habit, you can replace the behavior with something that will do the trick without sabotaging your health goals. If you are looking for an energy boost, you can replace the cookie habit with a green tea or twenty jumping jacks and get the same reward. If you need to keep your hands busy, I have many clients who have knitted their way into smaller jeans because it kept their hands out of the chip bag in the evenings. (Bonus: Scarves for everyone!)

If you are looking to feel loved and treated, this is where you have to dig a little deeper to find something that isn’t a cookie to genuinely make you feel the same way. What will scratch that emotional itch for a little indulgence?

This is inner work that no one else can do but you—but here are a few ideas: you could maybe substitute a quick text exchange with a friend, or ask your boo for a hug, take a break from work and treat yourself to a musical interlude with your favorite song, surf the net for pics of your next vacation, take a deep breath and think of three things you are grateful for. Even substituting an orange for the cookie is a step in the right direction if it genuinely makes you feel treated. (Even though the habit of eating when you want to feel loved will still be in place, every small win counts, as we will discuss further in chapter 9: “If You Can’t Do Something Right, Do It Totally Half-A**”)

This isn’t a snacking problem; this is a LIFE problem. You don’t need weight-loss advice; you need to figure out how to make your life easier.

But really the most effective way to pulverize a bad habit is to eliminate the trigger. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done, as often your trigger is going to be emotional—usually boredom or stress. So here’s where you are going to have to do some soul searching again: What can you do to make your life more interesting or less stressful? Seriously. I had clients who would say things like “I don’t know what’s wrong with me—I’m just so run off my feet and I can’t stop snacking!” And I’m thinking, This isn’t a snacking problem; this is a LIFE problem. You don’t need weight-loss advice; you need to figure out how to make your life easier.

I know you just want me to tell you to replace your cookie with celery sticks or whatever, but if celery sticks don’t alleviate your stress, it’s not going to give you the reward you need and your willpower won’t last. If you want to get lean and Healthy as F**k, you are going to have to come to grips with the fact that you need to do the real work of figuring out what triggers you and what rewards you need—rather than the easy work of just following a meal plan and chomping on some celery because some trainer told you to.

On the other hand, if the trigger is environmental, this is fairly easy to circumvent. Don’t go to that coffee shop with the excellent muffins. Don’t hang out with that person who is always like “It’s five o’clock somewhere!” as they fish around for the big wine glasses. If you always snack on the couch and watch TV—instead, brush your teeth, go to bed, and watch your show there (yeah yeah, it’s not great for sleep, but one thing at a time). People are often most successful at changing their habits when they move to a new environment. So if you have any shifts in your job or housing coming up, this is a great time to be intentional about building your new habits. If not, I tell you how to shake up your environment and set yourself up for success in chapter 6: “The Life-Changing, Magical Art of Getting Your S**t Together.”

Either way, now is the time to consciously create your new healthy habits that are going to totally transform your bod and your life. Here’s how:

1. Choose the habit you want to cultivate.

I humbly suggest you consider one of the 7 Habits of Highly Healthy Motherf**kers that we’ll get to in the next chapter.

2. Then, choose your trigger.

What’s going to set off your awesome new habit? The best idea is to hang your new habit on an existing circumstance that is nonnegotiable. Be sure to make your trigger:

Specific: “Right after I shower” is better than “every morning.”

Consistent: “When I get to work” is not a good trigger if you are a freelancer with irregular work hours and locations. “As soon as I wake up” would be a better one because it happens every day no matter what.

Logical: “When my kids go to bed” is not a logical time to work out if you get tired in the evenings. “After I’ve answered all my emails” is not a logical time to meditate since Inbox Zero is a magical, mythical fairy tale. Instead, try “Right after I’ve had my coffee” for your workout. “Right after I get dressed” might be a more realistic time to meditate.

Here are some examples of triggers that tend to work well as anchors because they are the types of actions we tend to do consistently and mark a specific moment in each day:

  • As soon as I wake up
  • After my shower
  • While I make coffee
  • When I walk my dog
  • On my drive to work
  • After lunch
  • After I pick up my kids
  • When I change into my pajamas
  • When I get in bed

3. Figure out the reward.

Most of the 7 Habits of Highly Healthy Motherf**kers that I’m about to teach you will have their own intrinsic reward. Eventually. Like, you know, the sense of oneness with the Universe when you meditate for twenty years. But, like compound interest, that shit might not kick in right away, so you should totally bribe yourself into good behavior until it does.

I definitely needed a bribe when I first started exercising. I don’t know about you, but when these perky girls would talk about the “runner’s high” I thought they were actually high, because my first heaving attempts at running felt like twenty minutes of psychological misery and physical hell, and I spent the whole time desperately trying to think of a reason why it would be okay if I stopped.

Until I found a reward that worked for me.

I promised myself that I could watch WHATEVER HORRIBLE MIND-ROTTING CRAP I wanted as long as I did it while power walking/jogging on a treadmill. I felt so naughty as I caught every paternity test on Maury Povich and furtively turned up the volume on Grease 2.

Now I exercise because it makes me feel amazing immediately afterward, but that wasn’t always the case. It used to totally suck. But it definitely sucked less when Maury got those lie-detector test results back, youknowwhatI’msayin’?

Stop trying to convince yourself that you’ll execute your new habit just because you SHOULD. If that was the case, you’d already have all this s**t on lockdown and Beyoncé would be pinning pictures of YOUR legs for inspiration.

There are tons of studies that show that rewards are highly effective to reinforce positive behaviors. Without the reward, the loop is incomplete and the behavior will always be an effort instead of automatic. This is the way our brains work, so just roll with it and reward yourself, mmmkay?

Now, this is where you get to do some soul searching (yes, more soul searching—deal with it) to figure out both (1) what makes you feel rewarded and (2) what is also a health-positive behavior (or at least health-neutral). If your new habit is to go for a thirty-minute walk after dinner, but your reward is to then drink Bud until you pass out, I don’t know if you are going to end up ahead in the health and wellness game. The best reward is something:

Immediate. It has to be something you can consistently deliver right after or during your habit. If you get up at 6:00 a.m. to exercise and then promise yourself an afternoon nap as a reward, your brain won’t make the association between the two actions—and it won’t form an automatic habit loop.

Actually feels like a reward. For example, if you try to “reward” yourself with half an apple after choking down an undressed kale salad, your brain will call bulls**t if it doesn’t feel like enough of a treat to reinforce the habit. One reward that works for me is saving my delicious breakfast smoothie until after my workout.

Only you know what will make you feel rewarded. But here are some ideas that have worked for others:

  • Download new music.
  • Use an app that tracks your progress so you can see a satisfying streak that you won’t want to break.
  • Post your triumph and awesomeness on social media and bask in the admiration of your peers.
  • Make the habit more fun and social by involving friends.
  • Allow yourself ten minutes in the sauna in your gym or a quiet sit on a park bench after your run.
  • Enjoy some guilt-free online window shopping/Pinterest browsing.
  • Take some alone time with a great book.
  • Connect with a long-distance friend.
  • Invest in a Fitbit or some other cool gear.
  • Listen to your favorite podcast while you go for a walk.

Okay. So now you know how to consciously create a new habit, but not all habits are created equal. What you want to get to work on are the 7 Habits of Highly Healthy Motherf**kers.

Copyright 2024 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.

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