Warning: This could be habit forming

There are many people I know who subscribe to the belief that if you want to establish a particular daily habit, it’s best to do it as soon as you get up in the morning. A teacher of mine has the habit of writing first thing in the morning, my husband insists that exercising in the morning is the only way to make sure he does it, and most regular meditators say that it’s important to establish that practice upon rising. You could say it’s the Nike model: Just do it.

But here’s my typical morning when I don’t have to rush out: get up, drink a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, eat breakfast with a second cup of coffee, have more coffee while doing the crossword puzzle…you get the idea. Can I possibly get into a different morning routine that allows me to accomplish more?

It’s tough to change habits. What we forget when we talk about establishing a “good” habit is that we usually have to eradicate a “bad” habit first. As a health educator, I’m frequently advising people on healthy eating, exercise and stress management, but even though they may have an intention to change, their habits of mind get in the way. If I examine my own life, and think about changes I’ve wanted to make, how often have I made progress? How often have I achieved my goal? And how often have I done that on my first try? Rarely, if at all.

Research has shown that as much as 40% of our daily activity is performed in exactly the same way each day. In other words, much of our time is spent acting automatically. This is great, in the sense that you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth every time you do it, but it makes it tough if you actually do want to change how you brush your teeth!geisha

We have two parts of our minds competing against each other. One is the intentional mind, which is goal-directed. This is the part we want to activate if we’re trying to lose weight, finish a project, or train for a marathon. The other part is the habitual mind, and it operates mostly outside of our awareness, helped by neurochemicals in the brain that allow habits to take over. We need the goal-directed part to be in charge long enough to get a new behavior established, then hope that the habitual mind kicks in and makes the behavior automatic. But how can we accomplish that?

According to social psychologist Wendy Wood, we first have to derail the existing habit and create an opening for a new one to take root. Because habits form through associative learning, a change in environment can often be a way to derail an old habit because  the cues for the behavior disappear. Some examples might be moving, changing jobs or hanging out with a different group of people.

What are some of the things that cue behavior? Many smokers say that they always have a cigarette when they have a drink. The drink is the cue for the cigarette – take away the drink, and maybe they are less likely to smoke. For others, watching TV is a cue to start snacking. So if you substitute another activity for TV viewing, you derail the snacking habit.

After creating opportunity and letting the intentional mind set a goal, it’s all about repetition. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 15-254 days for a new habit to be established. So repeating the behavior frequently is important, as is creating a consistent context in which it happens. In other words, we need to have new cues in the environment that trigger the new behavior.

It can take a while to figure out the new cues. When I moved a couple of years ago, I found that my writing habit was disrupted because my desk suddenly wasn’t a place where I could write anymore. Only after I began writing at the kitchen table was I able to consistently be productive. Then I could let repetition turn it into habit.chains

The theologian Tryon Edwards once wrote,

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steady gains in strength, At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.

While chains of steel sound a little scary, they’re exactly what our healthy habits need. Unfortunately, they’re also what makes it so hard to break the bad ones.

 

 

Advertisements

How to revamp your resolutions

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

Sydney_69

To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

Finding my balance

After two long weekends in a row away from home, I am still struggling with a feeling of disequilibrium. Don’t get me wrong – both weekends were a lot of fun, and I don’t regret going away. It’s just that I feel off-balance from having so little time at home in between.

In the language of stress, this is what is called “eustress”. It’s the good kind of stress, the kind that comes with a happy event or something else that is desirable. But it still throws us off balance in a way that is similar to negative events. It knocks us out of our usual routines, and makes demands on our bodies and minds.

For some people, travel might be routine, but for me, not so much. The first thing that goes off-kilter when I travel is exercise. My careful routine of running, yoga, and weight-training two times a week is out the window. If I’m lucky, I get in one run and maybe some quick yoga.

Eating also changes. Sometimes the food choices aren’t so healthy, or the mealtimes are erratic, or there’s too much or too little of something. Fruit is something I don’t eat nearly enough of when I am away from home.

Sleep habits might also suffer. Strange or uncomfortable beds, noisy rooms, and time changes can all cause problems.

Mentally, the demands can be more subtle. If we’re traveling for pleasure, we try to shift to vacation mode, but work might still be on our minds, especially if we think about all the things that aren’t getting done while we’re away. If the trip is business-related, we might feel like we are missing out on family time. So we are not fully present in the place we’re supposed to be.

Then, just when we’re getting used to the place we’re in, it’s time to go home!

Now we’re faced with the work that is undone, the people who need our presence and the myriad details of our lives that need to be dealt with. Sometimes it can take days to catch up. Essentially, we are trying to regain “homeostasis”, our steady state.

David Agus, who has a new book out called The End of Illness, argues that to be healthiest, people need to keep to a regular daily schedule of eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation. Most people might find it difficult to eat meals or exercise at the same time every day as he suggests, but I can see how it might be very helpful during times of stress, whether that stress is eustress (good) or distress (bad).

When I get back from a trip, my sense of focus is poor. I don’t know which task to tackle first. The temptation is to skip exercise or sleep, and to use the time to catch up on all I’ve missed. That’s probably the worst thing that I could do. Getting back to my regular schedule will ultimately make me more productive.

Here’s what I’ve observed during my first days back:

  • Right before I left for my first trip, I started doing a 21-day meditation challenge on the Chopra Center web site. Although I missed a couple of days while I was away, I have been pretty diligent about doing the meditations once or twice a day since then. That has helped to keep me grounded and calm.
  • I’ve gone back to reasonably healthy eating, although I find that I am unusually hungry at odd times of the day. That’s probably the result of not eating on a regular schedule while I was away. But I’m expecting that in a couple more days, I’ll be back on track.
  • The exercise habit is kicking back in. It helps that the weather is warmer this week and I’ll be able to run outside over the weekend. That will also help with sleep and appetite.
  • By tomorrow, I’ll probably be caught up on my work, and I’ll feel good about that.

Am I looking forward to my next trip? Yes, but I’m glad it won’t be for at least a month. While I relish the challenge and stimulation of travel and new experiences, I’m happy now for the comfort and well-being of home and habit.