John did not see himself as a very healthy guy. But he knew he had to quit smoking if he wanted to keep up with his son, born when John was already 42.
He started jogging around the block in place of his after-dinner cigarette. That nightly habit stretched into a mile-long jog. Jogging a mile turned into his first 5K. A year later, tobacco-free, he ran his first half marathon, pushing his 2-year-old son to the finish.
Geri tried for three years to lose the 20 pounds she had gained since turning 50. Each year, it was a different fad diet. Each year, she’d lose a few pounds and the extra weight would gradually return.
Geri decided to set up a game for herself: Snack on nothing but fruits or vegetables for seven days straight. That fired up her confidence. The next week, she added a 30-minute walk over her lunch hour. New habits kept building on, and two years later Geri was 20 pounds lighter with a whole new set of routines around food and movement.
Why changing a (bad) habit starts with retraining your brain
Geri and John are great examples of an important concept in habit transformation: Big change always starts small. It has to, neurologically speaking. That’s because habits are set deep within our brain structure. And every habit is linked to others in ways that take time to tease apart.
Charles Duhigg breaks it down brilliantly in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. “Habit loops,” it turns out, have three phases:
Phase #1: the cue – a trigger tells your brain to go into “automatic” mode and calls up which habit to use. Example: It’s 3 p.m., you’re bored and drowsy and you need your afternoon jolt.
Phase #2: the routine – with very little resistance, you launch your habitual action, whether physical, mental, or emotional. Without stopping to contemplate, you grab a coffee or eat a cookie.
Phase #3: the reward – your habit pays off: The food or the drug feels good or you get the emotional high of a feeling of accomplishment.
Habit loops can be pretty complex (the morning routine that gets you out the door in the morning) or incredibly simple (the emotional reaction to a spat with your child). But we form habit loops because they benefit humans. Once you’ve formed a habit, your brain can spend less energy on “the small stuff.” That leaves more neurons for important things like writing books, teaching young people, or inventing new products.
The problem, of course, is that bad habits are sometimes easier to set than good habits.
The key to habit change: Experiment your way to what works
Behavior scientists have made exciting discoveries in recent decades about how we can help ourselves build the habits we desire. It isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” and different techniques work for different challenges. But research supports that habit change resides inside your mind. And that experimenting with techniques like these are where to begin:
Replace rather than remove. Duhigg calls it the “golden rule” of habit change: It’s way more difficult to remove an entire habit loop than to replace the routine at the heart of it.
Here’s an example: For many people, the 3 o’clock slump is a daily snack trigger. A trip to the machine can be a sweet reward delivering both boredom relief and a shot of energy.
The old routine, running for the candy machine, isn’t working for your waistline. The solution? “Overwrite” the high-calorie routine with a zero-calorie routine that gets you the same rewards. Maybe it’s a walk around the block. Maybe it’s a shot of espresso. You may need to try a few things until the trigger-routine-reward cycle is working for you and not packing on extra pounds.
Approach rather than avoid. Closely related to our golden rule, researchers have found that moving toward a desired habit tends to be more effective than avoiding an unwanted habit.
Consider how that could change your habit-building strategy. Instead of “I want to stop being a couch potato,” try, “I want to take regular walks.” Or, take your cue from John and substitute an unhealthy behavior (the evening cigarette) for a healthier one (a jog around the block).
Zero in on a keystone habit. These habits matter most, because they tend to shift, dislodge, and remake other patterns. For John, quitting smoking opened up space for a new habit—jogging. That, in turn, gave him the confidence to shoot for a half marathon, which in turn, changed his eating patterns and his weight.
For a sleep-deprived teenager, replacing a social media habit with a nightly calming meditation routine would be a keystone habit with a ripple effect that could improve mood and even reduce cravings for high-carb, high-fat foods.
Focus on process more than outcomes. Geri finally started to lose weight when she began focusing on the process of eating healthier foods and moving more instead of the outcome of losing 20 pounds.
Psychologist Heidi Halvorson in her seminal work, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, describes this as “why” vs. “what” goals. “Why” goals (I want to lose 20 pounds) set a vision and provide an initial boost of motivation. But they don’t get the job done. “What” goals (I’ll snack on fruits and vegetables) help you drill down to the behaviors and habits that lead to real change.
Get analytical about your ABCs. Life is full of opportunities to make healthy choices the easy choices by setting up the right environment. Behavior scientists refer to this as the “ABC” approach, for “antecedent-behavior-consequence.”
Think about that tub of ice cream in the freezer (antecedent). It’s way too easy to sneak spoonfuls throughout the day (behavior). That ultimately leads to feelings of guilt as you disrupt your weight loss plan (consequence).
Remove the ice-cream-antecedent, and the behavior you desire is much easier.
Start with a “growth mindset.” Psychologist Carol Dweck has done breakthrough work showing the remarkable differences in achievement between individuals with a “fixed” mindset and those with a “growth” mindset.
People with a growth mindset believe they can improve through hard work, good strategies, and input from others. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset – those who believe their ability is simply something they are born with.
Imagine if John had been stuck in a “fixed” mindset: Not a natural athlete, he may have avoided the challenges and failures that come with building a running habit. Instead, his “growth” mindset drove effort, practice, learning and a whole new level of health and vitality.
When you see challenges as a chance to learn and experiment, you worry less about success and instead put energy into real, constructive change strategies. That’s the growth mindset in action. And it’s one more example of the power all of us have to break our routines and transform our lives—one healthy experiment at a time.