• Dr. Carolyn Frost

The Secret to Understanding Your Habits (Part I)


If you've struggled to understand why you do the things you do, or have failed at making long-term habit change stick... then, join the club, you're in VERY good company 😉


Welcome to Part I of a 3 Part Series on Habits!


  • Part I will describe what we know about habits, their formation, and the role they play in our lives. It's the first important step toward long lasting habit change.


  • Part II will help you create new, desirable habits. Think: listening to your body around eating and hunger, meditating, adding movement in, connecting with others more consistently and getting outside everyday.


  • Part III will cover strategies to alter those stubborn habits that are hanging on even thought they don’t suit us so well anymore. You know the ones…. snoozing your morning alarm 5 times, that nightly wine habit, or using social media as a way to escape your real life.


 

WE ARE CREATURES OF HABIT


 


We all have some habits that we’ve created (on purpose or not!) that are useful, effective and that suit us well.

Think: brushing your teeth each morning, stopping when you get to a red light, or reading before bed


We also engage regularly in a lot of behaviors that are uhmm…. less desirable.


Think: biting your nails, mindless eating, and negative self-talk


We keep coming back to these behaviors - helpful or not - because they've become automatic.

They are now the domain of our unconscious brain, rather than our mindful, logical, thinking brain.


They've become habitual.


 


WHAT IS A HABIT



 

Put simply, a habit is a behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur automatically.


A great many of our behaviors happen without our conscious awareness.


This is wonderful news if the behavior is desirable, not so amazing when the behavior is undesirable.


How many of these behaviors do you practice without even realizing it:

  • You walk into a room and flip on a light

  • You sit in the car and put on your seatbelt

  • You get home at night and put your purse in the same spot

  • You get to a red light and check your phone

  • You drive past McDonalds and stop for a snack

  • You go into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee each morning

  • You see your child’s leftover food and eat it

  • Your phone alerts you to an incoming text, you grab your phone to read it

  • You walk in the door at night and pour a glass of wine

  • You watch tv with a bag of chips

  • Your fingers find the right keys on a keyboard without you having to look

  • You feel nervous and start biting your nails

  • You get in the car and remind the kids to buckle up


Habits form out of necessity - our brains are looking for shortcuts, ways to simplify so that every single thing isn’t a new adventure. We wouldn’t get anything done if everything had to be thought about extensively.


In this way, habits are incredible time and energy savers. They are efficient. So our brains love them. Regardless of whether they are good for us or not.


Our work is to invite conscious awareness in - through examining thoughts and behaviors, so our actions come off autopilot, and we can begin to understand whether we really want these habits or not.


 


The Habit Loop

Affects Just About Everything You Do



 

You may have heard of the Habit Loop, popularized by Charles Duhhig in his 2012 book, The Power of Habit. Let's look at it and then modify it to add in an important missing piece ;)


Here’s how the Habit Loop is driving so many of your everyday decisions, without you even realizing it.


The Habit Loop tell us that when you see the CUE, you will do the ROUTINE in order to get the REWARD.


Every behavior has it's own Habit Loop; to understand your behaviors, you need to recognize each individual habit loop.

  • CUE: The trigger to initiate a behavior

  • ROUTINE: The behavior, what you do upon encountering the cue

  • REWARD: The benefit of taking the action/performing the routine

This cycle is completed in a fraction of a second and runs continuously in the background of our brain, so much so, that these behaviors feel like they are running on autopilot.


Here is a Habit Loop for someone who has an established daily running habit:

  • Cue: Running sneakers by the door

  • Routine: Lace them up and go for a run

  • Reward: Enjoy being outside, move your body, feel good

This Habit Loop is strongly reinforced through daily repetition, so much so that it seems like the Cue (sneakers by the door) CAUSES the behavior.


But we're missing one IMPORTANT detail!


The role your thoughts play.


It's the secret to understanding your habits at their most basic level.


 

The 'MINDFUL HABIT LOOP'

Cue, THOUGHT, Action, and Reward



 


Let’s use an example involving America's (my??) favorite snack: Doritos


The Doritos on the counter are the CUE to initiate a behavior - eat them, or walk on.


But it's not the Doritos on the counter that make us initiate the action or not - it's our THOUGHTS about the Doritos on the counter.


Doritos on the counter are just sitting there minding their own business. They are neutral; neither positive nor negative on their own.....


Until we have a thought about them.


Our thoughts could be:

  • Oh gross, there are Doritos on the counter

  • Oh Doritos.... I’ll grab a few, enjoy them and move on

  • Oh boy. There are Doritos on the counter. I shouldn't eat them, but I love them, but they have too many calories etc.. Ok, I’ll just have a few…. And then a few more…. Ok this is it, no more after this, and on and on…. (eats way past the point of fullness or satiation, feels guilty and full of shame)

Imagine the different behaviors you would initiate based on these thoughts.


And it's that thought that leads to the the action.


So even though it feels like the cue is responsible for our actions - there is always first a thought and a feeling that precedes them.


When we can slow the cycle down and study it, that’s when we can effect real change.


 

TO DO!! Consider the list below. Write down your first (ie automatic) thought you have when you read the word, and whether you would have any sort of action upon encountering it:


  • Hot coffee

  • Mint chocolate chip ice cream

  • Avocado toast

  • A glass of Rosé

  • Running shoes by the door

  • A set of 5 lb dumbbells

  • Your phone

  • A puppy

  • Movie theaters

  • Sound of a slot machine

  • Flying in an airplane

  • Your complexion

  • A smiling baby

  • The beach

  • A text from your best friend

  • Your childhood kitchen

  • Cigarettes

  • Yoga pants

  • A jelly donut

  • Your car

  • Your child’s face

  • Your thighs

  • A bowl of fresh cherries


You and I would likely have very different thoughts about many of the items (ie Cues) on this list. What sounds appealing or interesting to me, might elicit an opposite emotion for you.


Your own thoughts about these things might change from day to day, or even hour to hour!


But it's these thoughts that directly affect what you do, and therefor the way you show up in the world.


You aren't at the mercy of our environment, you get to be in charge.


The purpose of this exercise is yes, to get a clearer view about some of your thoughts, but more importantly, to recognize that these are all just neutral things - until you have a thought about them.


And specifically how that thought drives any action you take.


 

Mindful Habit Loops In Your Life


 

What are the positive Mindful Habit Loops running in your own life?


An example that works really well in my own life (and that I’ve shared before) is setting out my workout clothes the night before.


When I wake up and see my clothes laid out (CUE), I think, "Oh it's easy to get dressed in these clothes, and they are perfect for my walk!" (THOUGHT), I get dressed and then head out the door for a walk (ROUTINE), and I get an excellent start to my day by being active outdoors with my little pup Coco (REWARD).


This loop has served me well for many years.


But it’s not all roses and puppies.


A Habit Loop that doesn’t work so well in my life, is:


I pick up the kids from school and walk into the kitchen (CUE), I think, "Other people are going to eat now, I guess I should too" (THOUGHT), help them make a snack… and also have one myself (ROUTINE), which is delicious and enjoyable (REWARD).


Unfortunately, I often have just eaten lunch, and am not hungry. Like AT ALL. I’m just going through the motions.


Where in your life are you operating on autopilot even when you don’t like the outcome?


Can you slow it down enough to tune into the THOUGHTS you have between the CUE and the BEHAVIOR?


Once we know that there is a thought - and then importantly what that thought is - we can get to work creating habits and routines that are both intentional and beneficial.


That's where awareness meets action.


 

“Show me your routines, habits, and rituals, and I'll show you your future" - Joe Duncan


 

In order to better understand the impact of your habits in your life, let’s take a closer look at the current cues, thoughts, actions and rewards you have cultivated - and what you make them mean.


Step 1: Print out the Current Habits Tracker Worksheet


Step 2: Commit to being open-minded and aware as you identify opportunities for growth and self-compassion


Step 3: For one day (or three or seven!) jot down any cues, thoughts, actions and rewards. Even ask a friend or family member if there are habits that they notice - I bet they have a few to share ;)

Step 4: What do you notice when you look at the sheet? Are there some positive habits that work well in your life? Are there any you would like to modify or change? Do you notice a certain thought or emotion that precedes those challenging habits? What about for the positive ones? What are you making these habits mean about you?


Get really curious and remember to stay open to what comes up.

In this way we bring our habits from autopilot, where we don’t even know we’re engaging in them, to awareness where we can see them more clearly, understand their impact on our lives, and decide on purpose whether or not we want to continue with them.


YESSSSS!

With this information, we go forward to cultivate more of the habits we want in our lives, and re-imagine those that aren’t serving us so well.


As always, awareness is power.


Have a great week friends!


Stay tuned for next week’s blog post which will teach you a simple strategy to add in a new desirable habit. Hint! Start small on purpose and the world is your oyster ;)


PS!! A new and improved Healthy Mindset Living website is coming soon! I can’t wait for you to see it!!










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