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Habit Hacking: How to Use Habit Formation to Adopt Healthy Lifestyle Practices

Every New Year, millions of people make resolutions to lead healthier lives. Whether it's going to bed early, exercising daily, or eating more greens– these goals often start with enthusiasm but, sadly, tend to phase out by February. Why do so many people struggle to follow through with their well-intended resolutions? The answer lies in the power of habits. In this blog, we will discuss the science of habit formation and how you can use your brain to make healthy lifestyle changes achievable and automatic.

Fig. 1. Habit formation can help you reach your goals. Retrieved from Speexx.


What are habits?

Habits are behaviours that we perform instinctively, often without conscious thought. They underlie the routines that guide us through daily life, whether it's brushing our teeth, putting on makeup, or switching on our favourite Netflix show at the end of the day. Our brains use habits to streamline decision-making and conserve mental energy (Lally et al., 2011). Thus, they work as psychological “hacks,” allowing us to function with minimal effort, leaving cognitive resources available for more critical tasks.


How do habits form?

Psychologists use the ‘habit loop’ to describe the processes that drive habit formation. Habit loops consist of a cue, action, and reward (Chen et al., 2020). According to this framework, we perform habitual actions in response to environmental prompts or signals to ultimately earn a certain reward. Habit loops underlie both positive and negative actions. For instance, think back to the last time you were in Stauffer working on a hard assignment. Your mental frustration likely cued you to reach for your phone (action) and scroll on social media, temporarily relieving your stress (reward). We can leverage this same psychological process to drive the formation of more “productive” habits.


Fig.2. High screen time? It might be a habit, too! Retrieved from SkillsAcademy.


How can I adopt healthy habits?

Say, for example, you want to get into the habit of waking up earlier to exercise before class. You can lay out your gym clothes the night before as a “cue” to prepare for your morning workout. This will prompt you to get dressed while also saving precious time and mental energy deciding on what to wear. Once you’re dressed, you’re now ready to perform the “action” and go to the gym. To further enforce your new habit, you can prepare a “reward” for yourself, such as a tasty post-workout smoothie or meal.


Here are some other examples that you can try!

Healthy habit to manage stress

Cue: Feeling stressed or overwhelmed

Action: Take 2-5 minutes to practice deep breathing or meditation

Reward: Feeling calmer and more relaxed


Healthy habit to improve productivity and focus

Cue: Sitting down to work or study

Action: Set a timer for 25, 50, or 75 minutes to work on a task without distractions (Pomodoro Technique)

Reward: Sense of accomplishment, increased productivity, and a break after the workblock


Healthy habit to reduce sedentary time

Cue: Set a timer after 1 hour of sitting

Action: Go for a walk around the room

Reward: Break up sedentary time


Healthy habit to improve sleep and reduce screentime

Cue: Getting into bed

Action: Put phone out of reach (e.g., plugged in across the room) and read a book and or/journal for 15-20 minutes

Reward: Relaxation, a distraction from the day, and preparation for sleep

Fig. 3. Finding a partner (or PWC) to hold you accountable can make performing habits easier! Retrieved from Saatva.


It is also important to note that new habits stick better when approached in manageable chunks (Gardner et al., 2012; Lally et al., 2011; Smith & Graybiel et al., 2016). Thus, try taking baby steps. For instance, instead of hitting the gym the first time, you can begin with a gentle stretch, a home workout, or even a walk around your neighbourhood. Ultimately, our brains store the steps of a habit in neural pathways throughout the brain (Gardner et al., 2012; Smith & Graybiel, 2016). As we repeat a behaviour over time, it becomes more automatic, and the connection between the cue, the action, and the reward strengthens. Therefore, performing some semblance of your desired healthy practice will help foster habit formation, even if you’re not performing it “full-out.”


Habit formation is a game of consistency and patience; however, it’s worth it! By understanding and implementing the science of habit formation into your daily life, you can make healthy behaviours instinctual, allowing you to lead a happier, healthier life all year round. So, why wait? Start building those habits today!


References


Chen, W., Chan, T.W., Wong, L.H., et al. (2020). IDC theory: habit and the habit loop. RPTEL, 15, 10. doi.org/10.1186/s41039-020-00127-7


Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. The British Journal Of General Practice: The Journal Of The Royal College Of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664-666.

doi.org/10.3399/bjgp12X659466


Lally, P., Wardle, J., & Gardner, B. (2011). Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 16(4), 484-489. doi.org/10.1080/13548506.2011.555774


Smith, K. S., & Graybiel, A. M. (2016). Habit formation. Dialogues In Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 33-43. doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2016.18.1/ksmith

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