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

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.”

First published in the June 2013 issue

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