Five steps to harness our negative routines and turn them into good habits.

The holiday season is a time where indulgent treats and plentiful parties can disrupt even the healthiest of routines.  The start of a new year can be a perfect time to reset, develop, or even bring back healthy habits. And, while New Year’s resolutions are typically based upon good intentions, being intentional about adding fitness and healthier eating into each day is the best resolution of all.

So, why is it so hard to stick to our annual resolutions? According to recent studies, failure happens when our personal goals are too vague, or when we take on too many changes at once. And sometimes, in the name of creating new habits, we fail to recognize how our negative routines have a hold on our lives. It’s also difficult to create new habits when we haven’t recognized the power of old negative routines on our lives.

The good news, however, is that it’s possible to replace an adverse routine with a healthy one—as long as you have a plan of action. For starters, you may be more likely to succeed if you focus on one habit at a time. Also, be specific, and choose a hard start date (perfect for Jan 1!)

This 5 step process toward habit change challenges us to look at the “why” behind our habits. In his book,“The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about habit loops, which are circular behavior patterns that bring you from cue to reward.

Duhigg’s book is based upon the idea that if we have an understanding of  our daily actions, then we can set ourselves up to change any negative patterns of behavior.

5 steps toward habit change

  1. Identify your cue

A cue is a situational trigger based upon a desired reward. Triggers can come in many versions, including sight, sound, smell–or even time of day.

For example, the end of the workday (cue) can trigger you to drive your route home (routine) and provide you with the (reward) of relaxing in comfort. If you wish to create the habit of going  to the gym after work (instead of home), the simple step of placing your running shoes in the front seat of your car can modify the cue and trigger you to execute your new routine change. Remember, recognizing, understanding and modifying these cues is the first step to making a long-lasting habit change.

  1. Identify your reward

A reward is defined as the fulfillment you seek, after the routine. Rewards can be varied, and personal, but must signal that the routine is paying off.  For some people, if every afternoon (cue) you eat one of your office mate’s cookies (routine) you may think your reward is the sweet taste of a cookie. But stop and think about it for a second. Is your reward really what you think it is? For example, what if your real reward is the social aspect you gain by stopping by to visit your office mate every afternoon? Would there be something else that would satisfy the craving for social interaction that didn’t involve cookie consumption? Group fitness classes? Meeting a buddy at the gym? Studies show that although cues trigger routines, these cues must also create a craving for the anticipated reward. You’ll find greater success when you discover what it is that you really crave in the end.

  1. Swap your Routine– with intention

Routines are defined as the series of actions you take to acquire a reward. According to Duhigg, once you identify your cue and reward, it becomes easier to change your routine. But, to change a habit, you must change your choice from a passive to an active one. Ultimately, you must specifically choose a new routine that leads you to your ideal resolution or goal. Write it down, and insert it into your new habit loop. That way, when you get in your car to go home from your workday, see your running shoes (cue), instead of driving home (old routine), you drive to the gym (new routine), and gain your reward (the sense of accomplishment, social interaction, physical/mental wellbeing, etc.).  When you do this long enough,  you may develop a craving which could set off your Pavlovian response toward exercise!

To explain this concept, check out this flowchart that Duhigg offers on his blog.

  1. Get Group Support

As human beings, we are inherently social. Something is compelling about groups and shared experiences. Groups of like-minded people can help you with accountability, provide you with resources, and keep you motivated. Even if you tend to be an introvert, connecting, even in small ways, with people who have the same goals will help you stay on the right track.

Some ways to stay connected are to join or start a social media accountability group where you can share your thought and tips about your fitness journey. Running/Hiking clubs, and especially group fitness classes can keep the fitness forward person on the right track. Check out what the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) has to say about the power of group fitness here.

  1. Believe

It may seem cliché to say that you must believe in yourself, but according to Duhigg, it can be the necessary ingredient to make habits turn into permanent change.

It’s easy to go back to sitting on your couch at night when you don’t see immediate physical changes to your body. But, to get the long-term results you desire, you need to push through the period it takes for fitness levels to improve, weight loss to happen or fulfill other wellness-related goals. You need to believe that your new routine will produce the long-term results you desire, and believe in yourself to achieve them.

Remember this:

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

― Benjamin Franklin

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