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Week 1: How to Hack your Habits

Depending on where you are in the world, you’ve probably been in some semblance of a lock-down for at least four weeks, maybe even a few months already. When it comes to health, one of the biggest problems with the lack of daily structure that’s come with self-quarantining is the negative effects of a change in daily habits.

Habits are the backbone of the majority of both our failures and successes in life. Once you’ve repeated an action enough times, your brain is able to put that action on the back burner so it can be used for more important things, and a habit is born. If the repeated action is positive, such as daily workouts, healthy cooking, or washing dishes as you cook dinner, these create habits that help you stay healthy (and keep your house clean). If the habits are always having a snack when you watch a movie, daily energy drinks (this was my vice of choice for several years), sleeping in, or even just spending hours mindlessly playing games on your cell phone, the results might not be what you hoped for.

Have you ever been driving somewhere, gotten distracted, and found yourself automatically following the route towards work or home, when you actually needed to go to the grocery store? That’s because the route has become a habit, and you have to consciously force your brain to choose a different direction. Every habit works that way, which is why you can find yourself mindlessly eating a family sized bag of potato chips while binge watching The Office after work without even realizing that you’d opened the bag.

The problem with quarantine is that whether or not they realize it, a lot of people use their daily schedules to create habits. For some, that’s keeping a gym bag in the car and always stopping by the gym after work. For others, it’s always walking circles around the jungle gym or soccer field while the kids play to keep active. It can be the stash of healthy meal options kept at work, the routine of packing a healthy lunch, the water bottle kept at your desk that’s labeled with how many ounces you should be drinking an hour…there are countless more. For me, I would drop off my son at school at 7:15am, and immediately head to the gym. After the gym we would go home, I would do an hour of work, spot clean the house, make a healthy lunch, and go pick up my son from school. My gym time, work, time for cooking a healthy meal, and even some cleanup time were scheduled into my day until they became a habit.

Fortunately, there is a trick to hacking your habits and making them work for you. A habit has three parts: a trigger, the action itself, and the reward. For example, the trigger for me going to the gym was dropping my son off at school, and the reward was the workout itself (I really love working out) and how I felt afterwards.

So if you have a habit that you like, but the trigger is gone, you need to find a new trigger that will work just as well. Look at your schedule, see when and how you want this habit to occur, and then find a new trigger for it. It will take effort for a few weeks, but eventually the habit will be cemented and it will get much easier. If at all possible, try to keep the reward the same, or at least similar.

If you’re trying to avoid a bad habit rather than reinforce the good one, you need to examine what the trigger for that habit is. Does sitting down to watch TV have you grabbing a bowlful of snacks? Or does sitting at your computer for hours on end result in a few too many sugary sodas to stay alert? Once you’ve found the trigger, see if you can just eliminate it.

If that’s not possible, you need to find another habit to replace the negative one you want to avoid. This is VERY important. Because of the way habits work, it is MUCH easier to replace a habit than eliminate it. Replace the bag of chips with a cross-stitch, an adult coloring book, or find something else that you enjoy to keep your hands occupied. The more often you do this, the faster you’ll automatically start reaching for your new habit instead of the chips.

This sounds very simple but it may take a little bit of trial and error to find a new trigger or habit that will work for you long term, and that’s okay! Especially now, try to find a balance between being accountable and giving yourself some grace.

What habits are you trying to adjust right now?

What can we address today to help you be back on track and moving towards your goals in the next four weeks?