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Path to Health - Day 8: Helpful, Healthy Habits

You'll recall yesterday that I talked about how willpower is both overrated and much more limited a resource than we normally consider. It's an unreliable method to achieve your goals, whether it's to eat less junk food, stop smoking, or whatever else you might want to accomplish. And while I failed to mention it yesterday, motivation is also a very poor vehicle to get things done; motivation is enough to ignite a spark to get you started, but isn't sustainable for anything long term.

So if you can't rely on willpower or motivation to get what you want out of life, what can you rely on? What we need are systems. Systems that address the 5 main causes of behavior I discussed in Day 3. However, there's not really much to account for pathological disorders unless a professional doctor has a specific solution for you in such a rare case. Chemical hacks to your brain CAN be employed, but are extremely risky, as they typically delve into the use of experimental drugs. My aim is to address primarily the 3 middle elements of the CHEEP method: Habits, Environment, and Emotions. And today, I'm talking about habits.

When we think about habits, we usually think about conspicuous habits that we either label as "good" or "bad," such as smoking, gambling, drinking (all "bad") or exercising, meditating, or flossing (all "good"). But the reality is that habits are a far more integral part of our lives than we often consider, and it's because the very nature of habits is to do things autonomously, without having to think about it.

When you put on your shoes, which one do you put on first? Most of you can't answer right away, you may have to think hard about remembering the last time you put on your shoes, or you might even have to go put your shoes on just to find out. Why? Because your brain has made putting on your shoes a habit. You've done it so many times in your life that it's just clockwork, and you don't have to think consciously about it, so you likely don't even notice which shoe you put on first...but I can guarantee that for the majority of you, you always choose the same foot each time (or rather, the habit your brain built chooses for you).

A habit is simply a mechanical response to a triggering event for the sake of a reward. And that reward, if you'll remember what I talked about with brain chemistry on Day 3, is typically going to be a small shot of dopamine.

App designers know and exploit this very well with push notifications to your phone. Someone comments on your Facebook post, resulting in you getting a push notification about it (Trigger). You then open Facebook on your phone to check the comment (Action). Your checking of the comment clears away that pesky little notification alert on your phone (Reward). Your brain gets a small shot of dopamine because clearing away that alert notification makes it feel like you've "cleaned" something, and that leaves you feeling a little better. In essence, we check social media and email dozens of times a day to get high.

Those are just a couple examples of your daily routine that have become so habitual for you that you don't even have to think about it. Now the question becomes: how do we use this knowledge to our advantage? And the answer: through habit design. By consciously designing our own habits, we can set ourselves up for automatic success. And it's far easier than what you might think. There are just a few basic principles you have to follow to make habit design effortless:

1. Start Small. What happens when most of us start a new diet/exercise regime? We jump in cold turkey, doing a 180 on what we're accustomed to doing every day, and just try to use our own willpower and motivation to success (big no-no, as I've already pointed out). And what's the typical result of that? We might last a few days, weeks, or even months, but eventually our brains resist this new traumatic change and convince us to revert back to our old ways. So the solution is to start with small, gradual changes. Before I started this DietBet, I was already easing myself into eating Slow-Carb by making it my breakfast every day for a week. Before that, I was tracking calories for a while and cutting out sugary drinks to try to keep my daily caloric intake down, so my brain and body were already primed for some of the changes necessary to make Slow-Carb work for me.

You can start even smaller. I work on music 10 minutes a day at minimum. Before that, I was only doing 5 minutes a day. I often went over, but just committing myself to such a tiny amount of action made it easier for my subconscious to commit to it. When you start with tiny changes that build up over time, the behaviors and their effects last far longer than switching cold turkey. Want to eat more vegetables? Agree to have one additional serving every day at lunch or dinner. Want to work out more? Start with doing 2 pushups a day as soon as you get out of bed. Want to get your dentist off your back about not flossing? Agree to floss only one tooth when you brush at night. Yes, it seems like these actions are so tiny that they're silly and ineffective, but you can ramp up over time. This week, it can be one additional serving of vegetables. A week or two later, it can be two servings. You're in this for the long-haul, to change your life permanently. Good health and a good life are a marathon, not a sprint. So start small, and trust that you'll get there in time.

2. Do your new habit after a part of your established routine. The best new habits start with, "After I..." For example, "After I get out of bed, I will do two pushups." Or "After I eat breakfast, I will walk outside for five minutes." Remember that habits are actions that follow a trigger, so the easiest way to form a new habit is to make part of your daily routine your trigger. You CAN set up a new habit BEFORE a daily routine (like going to bed), but it's harder to trigger, so I usually stick with the "After I" model.

3. Celebrate yourself right after you complete your new habit. This sounds silly, but remember that for a habit to stick, your brain needs to feel something good right after the action. You need a reward you can rely on. As soon as you've completed your new habit, tell yourself, "I'm awesome!" Jump in the air. Do a small victory dance. Literally pat yourself on the back. And if anyone looks at you funny and asks what's wrong with you, just explain to them that you're improving your life and having fun while doing it.

4. Analyze and Adjust. Give yourself 3-7 days after starting a new daily habit to see how well it's working for you. Take notes if you need to. If your aim is to start walking right after breakfast and you find that something keeps getting in the way to keep you from doing that, then see if you can adjust the habit to something else instead, such as walking right after you wake up in the morning or walking right after lunch. Or maybe you chose too long a time to start walking. Maybe 10 minutes will suit you better than 20 to get you started. This requires a bit of introspection, but just keep a keen eye out on your own life and daily routines, and you will figure out what adjustments to make. Sometimes, habit design is just trial and error, but the important point is to keep trying.

5. Don't Go Overboard. You can start 2 or 3 new small habits a week, but I wouldn't do much more than that. Remember, the point is to ease yourself into a lifestyle change. It can be very tempting to want to try 8 new habits all at once, but you're much more likely to fail because it's harder to keep track of all of these habits all at once. You need to give your brain time for these new habits to take hold and find their place in your autonomous daily routine.

6. Build Good Habits to Break Bad Ones. Breaking a bad habit like smoking can be extremely difficult, and willpower is the most unreliable friend you've got when trying to stop doing something self-destructive. So since we understand now how habits are just triggered actions seeking a reward, you can use habit design as a way to create a sort of contingency plan whenever you're jonesing for your next fix. This is a more difficult practice (again because it requires some keener introspection), but if you can figure out exactly what reward you're seeking when you engage in a bad habit, you can try to design a healthier habit that offers the same or similar reward. Figure out the trigger for this bad habit and create an "After I..." habit plan to gradually replace your bad habit with this new one. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, mentioned in his book how he managed to cut out a mid-afternoon junk food snack at his office by recognizing that what he really was after was a break from work to socialize. He was able to design a new habit that kept him away from the break room vending machines and just chatted with some friends in nearby offices instead. Result: He lost weight and got a bit healthier.

These are the fundamental principles you need to know to start designing your own new habits. You can learn more in Duhigg's book or by taking BJ Fogg's tiny, free, week-long email course on habit design over at Best of luck!