A list of main everyday habits reveals quite a bit about who you are, what you like, and what you do. And we aren’t just talking about the little things like whether you brush your teeth before or after you shower or whether you hang your car keys by the door or put them on the end table. These habits don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. But the kind of breakfast you eat, the time you typically eat dinner, how many cups of coffee you have every day, and how often you exercise all have a huge impact on your health. These habits centered around food and exercise are some of the most important. Taking control of these habits can help you become happier and healthier. Do you want to see just how true this is? These statistics from research firm Massive Health will show you just how important your eating habits are:
- How healthy your food is decreases by 1.7% for every hour of the day that passes by, so if you habitually wait to have dinner until 9PM, you’re probably noshing on very unhealthy foods.
- On the weekend, we (as a society) eat 1.5 times as many cupcakes, 1.4 times as many cheeseburgers, and 1.4 times as many croissants.
- On Sundays, people sleep in later and are 10.2% less healthy overall.
- A habit of eating out is bad for you, since people eat around 12.7% healthier when they’re at home.
What is a Habit?
A habit is a regular tendency that can be especially hard to give up. MIT research shows that habits actually form physical neural pathways in the brain, which is what makes them especially hard to break. Habits are literally wired into your brain. Some habits, though, are good for us. For instance, as you’re reading this sentence right now, your brain is making use of a whole host of habits that you learned in grade school. When you first learned to read, you had to use tons of brain power to first recognize each letter, then sound out the individual letters, and then put the sounds together to form words. Now, the neural pathways in your brain for recognizing letters and interpreting their sounds is so ingrained that reading is practically effortless – leaving your brain with much more room to work on other things, like understanding the complex ideas that are being presented to you right now. Other habits, on the other hand, aren’t so great for us. That habit of getting up at the last minute so that you rush out the door without breakfast is costing you.
Studies cited by the Mayo Clinic show that people who skip breakfast make unhealthier eating choices throughout the rest of the day. By now you’ve got this series of small habits – probably set off by the sound of your alarm clock – embedded in your head. And since those neural pathways never really go away (which is why you can still ride a bike even if you haven’t been on one in years), breaking a habit is exceedingly difficult.
Is it a Habit or an Addiction?
At this point, you may be wondering about the difference between a habit and an addiction. On a brain-level, there’s actually not much difference. You form habits because you continually engage in a certain behavior that rewards you in some way, good or bad.
Even though habits can be negative or have negative consequences, addictions always lead to negative consequences. Addiction is usually linked to a substance or activity that gives you a certain psychological boost when you take it, whether its alcohol, gambling, or video games. Additionally, addictions tend to escalate over time, so that whether you’re addicted to checking Facebook or taking cocaine, you’ll need more and more of what feeds your addiction to feel “normal” as your addiction becomes worse.
How Long Does it Take to Create a Healthy Habit?
The real question for many of us is, “How long does it take to break an unhealthy habit?” The reality is that breaking an unhealthy habit can be just as difficult as creating a healthy one, and they often go in tandem. The process actually gets a little easier if you replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. According to a recent study from the UK Health and Behavior Center, it takes an average of sixty-six days to build a habit. In other words, it takes a little over two months for the average person to start exhibiting a certain behavior in the form of a habit. Although psychologically these habits may be hard to break/establish, they follow a fairly simple formula called a habit loop. The habit loop starts with a cue, which causes you to perform a habitual action, for which you get a reward.
For instance, your cue for your first morning habit is probably your alarm clock. When you hear that cue, you may get up and immediately make a cup of coffee, for which your reward is the taste of coffee or the effects of caffeine. All of your habits operate on this cue, habit, reward loop – although the cue and reward for the habit loop can be a little hard to figure out or even notice. A 2006 study from Duke University found that about 40-45% of the decisions you make on a daily basis aren’t actually decisions – they’re just this habit loop acting for you, so you’re really making “decisions” without deciding anything. When you brush your teeth, when you smoke, whether you get up right away or hit snooze – all of these choices are actually pre-made by your habit loops.
How to Break a Bad Habit
Something you should know is that bad habits never really go away. Because they’re embedded in your brain’s neural pathways, it’s easy to fall back into them. Since you can’t completely erase bad habits, your best bet is to override bad habits with new, good habits. If you can make the better habits stronger than the old ones, you’ll be more likely to follow these new, desirable habits. But doing this is a little more complex than you might think. The key, for most habits, is to figure out your habit cue. For instance, if your cue for eating an entire pint of ice cream on Friday evenings is turning on a new movie from Redbox, just stop watching movies on Friday nights. If the cue never comes up, you’ll quit repeating the habit. If you don’t want to give up your Friday night movie, that’s okay. You’ll just have to consciously change the behavior that goes along with your movie-night cue. When you turn on your movie, start enjoying a small bowl of air-popped popcorn instead. The key is to keep on keeping on when you’re making a habit. It will take longer than you think it will, and persistence is key. But, once you’ve formed the new habit, be alert to make sure you don’t fall back into the old routine. Once you replace that bowl of popcorn with a bowl of ice cream – even once – it will be easier to fall back into your old habit.
Building Willpower to Build Better Habits
So where does willpower come into all of this? Well, since it takes so long to make or break a habit, willpower is an important piece of the process. You’ve got to have the willpower to resist going back to your old habits until you create new ones to override them. That said, you must keep in mind that willpower is a limited commodity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), you can actually “use up” the majority of your willpower if you face a lot of temptations early in the day – meaning you’re more likely to give in to temptations at the end of the day.
Luckily, there are tricks to boost your own willpower:
- Out of sight, out of mind: Taking your temptations out of sight. Literally hiding the office candy bowl can help strengthen your willpower, since you don’t have to actively reject temptation.
- Have a plan: Having a plan for resisting temptation is another proven way to increase your willpower. If you want to go to a birthday party but know you will have to turn down the cake, just tell yourself, “If there’s cake at the party, I’ll fill up on the vegetable tray instead.”
- Find your motivation: Your willpower will be depleted less quickly if you have a strong motivation for forming a new habit. This is why things like weight loss bets and pools tend to work. They offer monetary reward for establishing healthier habits – a tangible reward.
- Exercise self control: The great part about making new habits is that the more often you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Literally, using willpower actually gives you more of it – so start small. Work your way up to changing bigger habits as you reach your small goals and build up your willpower.
- Maintain your blood sugar: An report by the APA shows that willpower depletes along with your blood glucose levels. So, if you’re starting to feel hungry or mentally run-down, eat a healthy snack. You’ll be able to resist that tempting leftover donut in the break room better if your blood sugar is stable.
The Bottom Line
Changing your habits is crucial to creating a healthier you. The first step is to examine the unhealthy habits you have in place right now. First, recognize the action or habit. Then, pinpoint your cue or trigger. Finally, identify your reward – this is usually an intangible thing like relaxation or comfort. Then, spend some time outlining a new habit you’d like to form. For example, to stop snacking on sweets in the afternoon, recognize the time of day you usually succumb to the snack. You may have trained yourself to expect food at that time. That is your cue. Your snacking is the habit. Now, pinpoint your reward.
Are you looking to feel satiated? Or maybe you get a sense of comfort from the physical act of eating? If you get comfort from the act of eating, try some low-calorie popcorn. It will satisfy the sensation of popping food in your mouth without too many added calories. Lastly, use the tips and tricks above to keep you on track.
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