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

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 mysocalledsensorylife.com) 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.

First published in the June 2013 issue

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