How to Break a Habit... or Start a New One

    Habits are much more powerful than we realize. So often we act out of what we are used to, what we know, what we have done in the past instead of making a better choice. A choice in the moment that might be for our higher good. In researching for this issue, I saw that oftentimes, detrimental behaviors can be modified by focusing on changing patterns, and forming new neural pathways. Now, I am not saying I don't need a shrink. But how empowering to have the tools to make significant change by identifying the kind of choices you want to be making and habitualizing them? Below, we share what we have learned on the subject.



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    Making & Breaking Habits

    We talked to Jeremy Dean, the author of the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, and got some strategies for creating new habits and getting rid of old ones.

    Q: How are habits formed?

    A: Through repetition, when we repeat the same action in the same situation. Each time we repeat the same action, we're teaching ourselves a pattern and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. After a while we'll perform that response automatically. If you want to create a new good habit, you need to repeat the same action in the same situation to create that unconscious link between situation and action.

    Q: What's the best way to get rid of a habit?

    A: In some ways it's not possible to get rid of a habit because any habit you create tends to stay in the mind forever. That doesn't mean, however, that we're destined to perform our bad habits for the rest of our lives. What we can do is replace a bad habit with a good one, or at least a neutral one. So for example, if you're trying to give up smoking, quite often people choose to chew gum, because it's generally incompatible with smoking.

    Q: Sometimes replacement requires a lot of willpower. How do we get beyond this obstacle in order to make a change?

    A: When you're trying to change a habit, you're going to have this fight, this kind of willpower battle, between the new habit and the old habit. After a period of repetition, though, the new response will take over and you won't need the willpower anymore. What you're looking for is for that new response to be automatic, so you don't have to have that tussle with your willpower.

    Q: What about creating a whole new habit?

    A: The first thing is to have a really specific goal in mind, like flossing for example. And you have to have a really specific plan, so what you do is try to connect the situation with the action you're going to take. For example, you decide that before you brush your teeth in the morning, you're going to floss. In this way, you're linking the new habit onto another routine action you have in your day. Now repeat this sequence every day.

    Q: Can you tell us a little bit about "If/Then" plans, which are supposed to be helpful in creating habits?

    A: If you're thinking about, for example, trying not to eat unhealthy snacks between meals, you can use an if/then plan. "If" is the situation and "then" is the action. So "if" you're feeling hungry between meals, you can link that with "then" eating an apple. You can use this for almost any type of habit that you want to create. Studies show that if you make a conscious plan like this, it can really help to get started with a new habit.

    Q: What are some other strategies that are helpful in forming good habits?

    A: At the beginning, when you're struggling between old habits and new habits, if your willpower levels are low, one thing that can help is self-affirmation. Think of someone or something that's important to you. So when you're feeling weak and tired at the end of the day, this can help boost your self-control.

    Leave little messages where you can easily find them like on the refrigerator, or near the door, or on your doorstep, to remind yourself of what you'd like to change.

    Pre-commitment is quite handy. What you do is try and think ahead to times when you're going to be tempted to follow your old habits, and think of how you can commit yourself in advance to your new habit. So if you're trying to avoid using Playstation, you can give the controls to a friend so that you won't be tempted. When you're feeling strong, you make a decision so that when you're feeling weaker and more susceptible later, the temptation will be gone.

    Q: How long does it take to form a new habit?

    A: There was a study done at University College London a few years ago that found that there is huge variation in the amount of time it takes to form a new habit. Anything from a couple of weeks up to months depending on the type of habit you're trying to form and the techniques you use to do so.

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    The Habit Loop

    Charles Duhigg, in his fascinating book The Power of Habit, investigates habits both in individuals and large corporations. We find out just how much our lives are ruled by habit, both at home and at work.

    How to create new and change old habits:

    These charts, made from the concepts in his book, show us, simply, how to make and break a habit.

    Click image for larger version

    Click image for larger version

    Courtesy of Random House

    In the book, Duhigg breaks habits down into "habit-loops": "First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  Then, there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Finally there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic." 

    Things to keep in mind about habits...

    Be Aware:

    As Duhigg explains, "A number of studies show that informing people about their habits makes them easier to control. They don't need to be looking for the cues and rewards, but just being aware of repetition actually helps people a lot."

    Keystone Habits:

    We also learned about habits that can trigger other positive habits: "There are some habits – called keystone habits– that can cause a chain reaction through someone's life or an organization. A great example of a keystone habit is exercise. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they often start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and getting to work earlier. They smoke less, and show more patience. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It's not completely clear why, but for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

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    Here are a few resources to help you create new habits:


    We came across this pretty awesome and free service that helps you, day-to-day, change bad nutrition and fitness habits by starting new good ones. Exercise physiologist/trainer Marco Borges founded his company 22Days Nutrition to make the kind of raw, vegan, organic protein and energy bars and shakes he actually wanted to consume. From there, he created his eponymous challenge, which is meant to help you start new healthy habits.

    The Marco Borges Challenge

    About the Challenge:

    Marco's online program allows you to choose a lifestyle - vegan, vegetarian or meat eater - and how much weight you'd like to gain or lose (>20, <20, none). Then, diet tips, recipes, exercises and empowerments are emailed to you daily. The idea is that over the course of the plan, you'd have adopted a few good habits (exercise and diet) and through replacement, eliminated a few that were not so good.

    Marco's Theory:

    "The concept behind 22Days is about empowering people with the tools they need for healthy living. Hence, our tagline, 'It takes 21 days to make or break a habit...with 22 days, you've found the way.' You don't think twice about brushing your teeth in the morning or showering. Because it's a habit. You can create the same habit with a workout or eating well."


    Some Cool Features

    Meal Plans & Shopping Lists:

    On the challenge, you'll get daily emails with the proposed meal plan to help you stay on track. From an energy bar and a piece of fruit for breakfast to a quick and easy recipe for a bean and quinoa bowl for dinner, the menus are tasty and easy-to-follow. The shopping list helps you stock your pantry and fridge for the challenge (so there's no turning back).

    Power Bites & Enlightenment:

    In addition to the practical stuff, Marco offers daily doses of inspiration to those on the challenge through his "power bites" and "enlightenment" soundbites. Information can include anything from how to get back on the wagon if you feel you've gone off, to medical factoids on the benefits of physical activity for women and so forth.


    Marco's bars are all vegan, organic and raw, and the flavors are pretty delicious.

    Marco's Protein Shake

    Marco lends us one of his favorite "simple but great" protein shake recipes: 1 1/2 cups of almond milk, 1 frozen banana, 2 scoops of protein. Blend, enjoy!

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    Simone Shubuck's beautiful work will be on display at Taylor De Cordoba in LA, opening this Saturday the 27th.

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    Tiny Habits

    Researcher and Stanford professor, BJ Fogg, has started a program that guides people via a week's worth of daily emails through five days of miniscule habit change. The idea is to start small and build from there. Participants choose three "tiny habits" that require almost no willpower or motivation to add to their routine. For example:

    "After I brush, I will floss one tooth."

    "After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom."

    "After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book."

    He encourages you to celebrate the completion of each tiny habit, to slowly (and naturally) to build upon the ones you've created.

    UP by Jawbone

    UP is a wristband that you wear 24/7 that tracks your movement and sleep and helps you keep a record of what you eat and how you're feeling on a daily basis. You can see your results by plugging the UP band into an iPhone/Android app that keeps all the tracking information on it. We've started using the band as a way of becoming more aware of our daily habits in order to make changes to our everyday behavior. We talked to the folks at Jawbone to get the facts on how UP works.

    Q: Why is awareness of your current habits so essential to changing them?

    A: Having an accurate picture of yourself and your baseline allows you to make informed decisions about your everyday life. We all want to have healthier lifestyles, but there's a gap between what we know we should do and what we actually do. Many people don't have an accurate picture of themselves, so they don't know where to begin.

    Q: What research did you rely on to come to this conclusion?

    A: We spoke with a lot of people about their personal experiences and what motivates them, we extensively researched behavior change theory, and we also looked at self-improvement programs that have existed for a long time, like gym memberships and diets. 84% of the people we spoke with said they want to improve overall health and wellbeing but 72% reported having trouble consistently maintaining healthy habits. We know that the simple act of tracking can instigate behavior change - studies show that tracking activity can increase activity 26%.

    Q: Are there results you can share with our readers on how having an UP band has helped people make permanent changes?

    A: We've seen a lot of people make changes like figuring out who should be on "baby duty" by analyzing both partner's sleep cycles; people who walk during meetings and on conference calls and realize they get more steps than they would from a workout; people who've changed the types of foods they eat before bedtime to get more deep sleep. And we've seen that team building can be a key motivator - UP users with one or more teammates work out 20% more and walk 10 miles more per month than UP users without teammates.

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