Change One Small Habit, Change Your Life

Recent brain science shows how to resist temptation, get motivated and blow up your routine for the better

by Brian Alexander
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

This morning I rolled out of bed at 5:30. I mean this literally. I rolled onto the floor, paused on all fours and moaned, “Oh, God.” It was not a prayer.

I became a writer partly because I figured nobody would ever ask me to get up at 5:30 to deliver an emergency adjective. But there I was at 5:45, sitting in front of a keyboard as part of my new strategy for creating better work habits. The goal: to improve the trajectory of my career, maybe even my life.

My inspiration for this hard-for-me change was a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by investigative journalist and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. To achieve change in your life, Duhigg argues, simply plug new routines into your day and stick with them until they become habits. The concept amounts to a grownup version of the rule my mother instituted when I started first grade: Finish homework first, and then you can play outside. The bigger payoff is that these new habits can, in turn, become “keystones” supporting other, seemingly unrelated changes. Change one habit, and maybe your social life will improve, your business will become more profitable, your family will be happier.

The idea is simple to state but not so simple to put into practice. If rebooting our habits were easy, “we’d all be thin, and we wouldn’t have so many people with drinking problems,” says Dartmouth University professor Todd Heatherton, PhD, who researches self-regulation, the process by which people exert control over their behavior. Still, habits form according to an elegantly simple logic, and understanding the process opens the door to all sorts of beneficial changes.

Your brain loves it when you develop habits. That’s because your brain requires lots of energy, especially when you’re reasoning, so the more activity it can shunt onto autopilot, the more power it has for complicated stuff like completing your tax returns. To keep you from having to think about behaviors you repeat often—how you commute to work, take a shower, make love—your brain forms sets of boilerplate instructions.

How does the brain persuade us to embrace a habit? By giving us rewards (through a series of chemicals that activate pleasure and motivational circuits), it teaches us to always respond to a certain cue with the same routine behavior. For example, you see that it’s 7:30 am (cue), so you hop into your car and drive to work (routine). Because you’ve left on time, you avoid traffic and get to work exactly when you should (reward). A cue could also be the sight of your favorite chocolate. Eat the chocolate (your “routine” whenever you see a tasty-looking piece), and your pleasure circuits will spring into high gear. Another example: Your beloved gets home from work (cue), and you sit down to drink dirty martinis together (routine). Eat, drink, have sex—in every case, your brain chemicals will provide bliss or, even more powerfully, release you from stress or anxiety. When we get a reward, we’re motivated to repeat whatever action (routine) led to it. Soon we’re in what Duhigg calls a habit loop. His equation: cue + routine + reward = habit.

Many of our habits—often the bad ones—are formed as a result of our efforts to relieve tension or anxiety. Sharon Rowe, 56, an entrepreneur in Ossining, New York, cofounded, a pioneer in the reusable-bag industry. Like many other small-business owners, she felt constantly on call, hypervigilant for any sign of a snafu. “The sound of an incoming e-mail or text was my cue,” she recalls. “When I did not have my phone, I was anxious, and when I did have it, I was constantly checking it.” Her routine was to interrupt whatever she was doing to check the screen. Her reward was either the satisfaction of a pleasant social connection (one of the most powerful human cravings) or the release of anxiety that comes from knowing she had headed off a work problem. But her habit became “an overwhelming time suck,” she says, and it annoyed her friends.

In trying to change my work life, I too had to deal with a “time suck” habit. I’ve known for years that my leisurely morning routine—reading the newspaper for hours over coffee and breakfast before sitting down at my keyboard—resulted in my accomplishing far too little in a workday. But like Rowe, like everyone else, I’ve been caught in a battle between reward and reason, a struggle in which our reward circuits have the advantage. Located primarily in our midbrain, reward circuits developed early in evolution to drive us to seek food, water and sleep and to reproduce. Likewise, fear and anxiety circuits, also extremely powerful motivators, evolved early so we’d try to escape danger. But our rational circuits, centered mainly in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), behind our foreheads, evolved much later. They help us look into the future and anticipate the consequences of our actions. We use our rational circuits to calculate risk, make complex decisions, exert self-control—and help us form positive habits. Every time a dieter is confronted with a double-cheese pizza, reward circuits shout “Yes!” while the rational brain shouts “No!” In my case, every time my alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, my PFC says “Get up, get up!” but my reward circuits say “Noooo! More sleep!”

The outcome of this battle can vary significantly from one person to another, depending on life experience and genes. That’s why it may take one person a few weeks to adopt or change a habit, while another person may need many months. The winner of the rational-versus-reward battle can vary within each of us because of the role stress plays in our efforts to form positive habits.

Stress and anxiety aren’t always bad, of course. Without them, we wouldn’t run from a bear. But stress—including, for example, the upheaval that results from loss and grief—shifts the balance of power in our brains by suppressing activity in the frontal lobes and boosting our craving for reward. When we’re under stress, we become fixated on relieving it, without thinking much about countervailing costs. “Once you see your life choices in terms of your desire to relieve tension,” says Duhigg, “many things make sense.”

Also weakening our ability to resist reward is a phenomenon called depletion. In 1998 psychologists led by Roy Baumeister, PhD, then at Case Western Reserve University, hypothesized that self-control could be exhausting for our rational brains. To find out if that was true, they conducted a series of experiments. In one they put hungry men and women in a room in which chocolate chip cookies had been baked, so the aroma filled the space. A plate of the cookies was on display, alongside a plate of radishes. The people were divided into two groups. One group was told to eat only cookies; the other group was told to eat only radishes. Five minutes later, both groups were asked to work on a geometric puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, -unsolvable. The people who were told to eat the cookies, whose PFCs were rested because they hadn’t had to exert self-control, worked twice as long on the puzzle as the people who were told to eat the radishes. In other words, our supply of willpower can be depleted, making us more susceptible to the lure of reward and less able to escape a habit.

Jennessa Durrani, a 41-year-old wife, mother and corporate-event planner who lives near Boston, knows all about willpower depletion. In recent years her job became all-consuming, and her mother’s death in 2012 created extra turmoil. By the end of each day, her PFC was stressed out and weakened. At the same time, she’d have to decide what to give her family for dinner. Conjuring a last-minute meal “was a horror! A horror every day!” she says.

The fastest way to relieve the “horror” was to pick up drive-through burgers or a pizza. In terms of the habit loop, her cue was the end of the workday, her routine was buying fast food, and her reward was stress relief. Durrani wasn’t happy about feeding her family such unhealthy meals, but she felt powerless to act differently.

What helped her break the habit loop was a letter from her son’s school alerting her that he was gaining weight. The missive served as a slap of self-awareness that motivated Durrani to come up with a very specific, if challenging, plan. This past January, she began setting aside Sundays to prepare almost all the food her family eats during the coming week. She makes salads, broiled chicken, vegetables, rice, meatballs. “It’s like the Garanimals of dinner,” she says. “Everything can be mixed and matched.”

Cooking all day is not how Durrani ever envisioned spending her Sundays. But the healthy ready-to-eat weeknight dinners are only one of several major rewards she’s enjoying. Because her husband helps with shopping and the kids pitch in with the cooking, Sunday prep has become a kind of fun family event. “And when I see that organized fridge jam-packed with fabulousness, I get off on it,” she says. “My life is absolutely less harried now.”

The type of self-awareness Durrani experienced is critical for breaking a habit: We can’t escape a cue-routine-reward loop if we don’t know we’re in one, and we won’t successfully adopt a habit if we don’t know what reward we are seeking. It was self-awareness—and its cousin, self-monitoring—that helped Laura Rossi, the 43-year-old owner of a public relations firm in Rhode Island, undo a habit of “catastrophizing” her life. Rossi’s son, now 10, had received a cascade of medical diagnoses almost from the moment of his birth. The stress of dealing with his health issues had worn Rossi down. Eventually, even minor troubles, like receiving a notice that her son had misbehaved at school, became a cue triggering a routine of panicky calls to her husband or mother in which she’d vent her fear and misery. The reward for that routine was relief from the stress. But the relief was short-lived; rehashing the setbacks convinced her that the worst was always waiting to happen. Eventually, she became self-aware enough to realize that “for me, the glass was always half empty.”

Then she began using a trick to interrupt her habit loop. Instead of responding to a cue—a piece of bad news—by catastrophizing, Rossi visualized. “In my mind, I pictured a roadblock or a light switch,” she says. “I’d imagine climbing over the roadblock or turning off the light switch, and I’d say to myself, I can do this.” The trick didn’t always work, especially at first. But each time she transformed her anxiety into a visual picture and then conquered it, she chalked up a little victory.

Rossi’s self-awareness also helped her find a second strategy for changing her habit. While sitting in yet -another doctor’s office in 2009, waiting to deal with more bad news, she tried to think of a blessing, just one thing for which she could be grateful. That helped. By March 2010, she was blogging (at about one blessing every day: the convenience of running water, a lesson in bravery from her son, her daughter’s patience with her brother’s special needs. “After a while, my anxiety began to disintegrate,” she says.

Without realizing it, Rossi was using a tool recommended by many therapists. Research has shown that fostering a habit of gratitude is tightly linked to decreases in depression and anxiety, most likely because it engages the PFC and tamps down fear circuits, which in turn allows us to project ourselves into the future, to think of what’s right in our world and what we can do to fix what’s not.

For Beth McRae, 49, of Scottsdale, Arizona, breaking a bad habit turned out to be relatively easy—once she became self-aware enough to recognize the reward she was after. McRae worked hard at the marketing company she owns and felt she deserved an after-work drink with friends. Soon the end of her workday became a cue sending her to a bar. But one glass of wine often led to more, which led to her canceling morning business meetings so she could nurse hangovers.

Then, one evening, McRae’s wine bar buddy asked, “Do you think we drink too much?” Struck by her friend’s question, McRae was forced into a state of higher self-awareness, using her PFC to think about her habit and her reasons for drinking. The booze, she realized, wasn’t the reward she was looking for. What she really wanted was the time with friends. So she changed her routine. Now when her day ends (her cue), she meets a friend for a movie or gets together with others for volunteer committee meetings.

Changing a bad habit requires a hefty initial dose of willpower. But if we persist, what once took conscious effort may become automatic. The first morning I got up at 5:30, I was miserable. But I did it. Hooray for me. That was a little victory, a successful workout for my willpower “muscle.” I’ve been getting up at 5:30 for two months, and it’s still difficult. But it’s not as difficult as it once was, because the neural connections in my brain are slowly forming new patterns. My willpower has been getting stronger, beefed up by a series of what Duhigg calls small wins. Remember Sharon Rowe, who wanted to reduce her dependence on the cell phone and computer screen? She started by living screen free for a 24-hour period each week, from Friday night through Saturday night. “It was hard then, but it’s not hard now,” she says. That’s because an effort of will has segued into the power of habit.

Self-awareness, self-monitoring and willpower are all key to busting out of a bad habit and forging a new one. So is coming up with a specific plan. Diane Annese, 49, who lives in Burlington, Massachusetts, wanted to create an exercise habit but was unable to figure out a convenient schedule for workouts on her elliptical trainer. Two weeks after deciding to exercise, she’d managed just a couple of sessions. Then she bought a clip-on monitor that registers all her physical activity, and suddenly she was motivated: The monitor made her aware of her lack of progress. She began setting goals and steadily increasing her exertions.

After McRae stopped drinking, she too decided to build an exercise habit, and she came up with a specific program. Every night she lays out her exercise clothes at the foot of her bed: Seeing them in the morning becomes her cue to step on her treadmill. She established a time goal—15 minutes to start with—and an incline. Her reward was a post-workout coffee. After two weeks, she pushed her treadmill time up to 30 minutes and raised the incline. A month after starting to exercise, she signed up for a 5K.

McRae’s story illustrates how keystone effects can take hold in our lives. McRae beat one bad habit—she quit drinking—and that one small change set in motion a ripple of other, positive changes: Since she started exercising, she has lost weight and feels more energetic. She stopped smoking (she usually smoked only when she drank). And now her business runs more smoothly.

Rossi and Rowe have also noticed keystone effects from their habit changes. Rossi says she feels more powerful and in control, so much so that last year she ran the More/Fitness Women’s Half-Marathon. Rowe tells me that since she beat her screen habit, her relationships have improved. “When I’m with another person,” she says, “the thoughts occurring to me in that moment are about my relationship with that person. I’m no longer drawn out of the present moment.”

Durrani may reap keystone effects from her Sunday cooking marathons that she can’t even appreciate now, because they’ll accumulate over decades. Studies have shown that by the time children are teenagers, those who eat traditional, sit-down family meals with parents are less likely to have used marijuana or alcohol than teens who rarely eat such meals. The dinner-eating kids are also more likely to say they have good relationships with their parents and less likely to experience depression.

As for me, I’m a work in progress. I’m meeting my primary goal of getting more work done, but it’s too early to talk about life-changing keystone effects. There had damn well better be some good ones, though, because without a big payoff, I just might tell my PFC to pipe down and let me go back to bed.

Brian Alexander’s latest book is The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction.

Next: The Richness of Empty Evenings

Want MORE? Sign up for our weekly newsletter

First Published Mon, 2013-05-20 09:08

Find this story at: