By Alison Pendergast, MA, NCC, LPC with Chapin & Russell Associates
Have you ever made the decision to change a habit, whether it was starting an exercise routine or a new diet, only to start off strong and then have it all fall apart within a day or two? We have the very best intentions to make important changes in our lives, only to find ourselves exactly where we began, shaking our heads, perhaps resolute that we simply don’t have enough willpower or that our dreams were too lofty. And so, we give up, we don’t change, and we settle for a life that we don’t love.
The good news is…you’re not alone. The even better news? You may be closer to making lasting changes than you think.
The Habit Loop
According to Ann M. Graybiel, Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, “We all live mostly by habit.” Graybiel’s research discovered the mechanism by which we form habits, called a habit loop. The habit loop in a nutshell: we have a cue, or stimulus, which signals for us to perform a set of behaviors, called a routine, and then these behaviors are reinforced with a reward. For instance, we are in the habit of brushing our teeth before bed (I hope!). Let’s break this down using the habit loop:
Our cue is that it’s bedtime, which signals that it’s time to walk to the bathroom sink, pick up our toothbrush, pick up the toothpaste, open the cap, squeeze the paste onto the bristles…you know the drill. The rewards are we have clean mouths, fresh breath, and we enjoy the knowledge that we are protecting our future health and teeth!
The habit loop is a powerful mechanism that can be used to create the lifestyle of our dreams. If not harnessed, however, the habit loop can also support unhealthy lifestyle choices. The good news? The choice is ours and we hold the key!
Robert Fritz, best-selling author of Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life, describes how the difference between our present self and our future self creates a structural tension. Imagine a bow and arrow. The tension the bow creates when you aim it at a target and pull back, is like the tension we need in order to create the habits and lifestyle we want most.
Let’s put this idea into action with an example and apply it to a structural tension chart. Say you want to begin waking up a couple hours early every morning so that you can have an energizing morning routine, rather than your usual haphazard routine of waking up 30 minutes before you need to be at work.
Structural tension requires us to identify 3 things:
- Our current reality
- Our future reality (primary choice)
- Our secondary choices (which are a set of clearly defined habitual choices that support our primary choice)
Our current reality is waking up 30 minutes before work, and all the consequences that this habit creates. Our future reality, also known as our primary choice, is something we want more than anything else. You currently enjoy that feeling of pressing the snooze alarm and going back to bed, repeating this ritual several times until you absolutely must get up. Although there is reward involved in your current routine, you have suffered the negative consequences of this habit for much too long. You get to work feeling frazzled, you have less energy because you skipped breakfast, you didn’t prepare your lunch so you spent too much money in the cafeteria, and the list goes on. As much as you enjoy sleeping late, you want your primary choice even more: a day filled with more energy, an enjoyable drive to work listening to your favorite motivational podcast, and money saved.
Realizing what we want most is one of the more powerful tools in habit change. It gives us the strength and motivation we will need when we’re having to make choices that aren’t yet habit. Once we are clear about WHY this change is important, doing the change work is much easier and rewarding.
We’ve identified our current reality, our future reality, and now we need to identify our secondary choices that support our future reality. We need small, manageable choices to support our new, primary choice. Secondary choices are specific action steps that need to be so small and manageable that we can consistently accomplish them even on our very worst days. Here’s a list of possible secondary choices that would support our new morning routine:
- Set morning alarm for 6:00 am
- Set up coffee maker before bed
- Be in bed by 10:00 pm so that you will have slept approximately 8 hours and therefore won’t be too sleepy in the morning
- Before falling asleep, visualize yourself following through with your new morning routine
Granted, getting to bed by 10:00 pm may need its own structural tension chart, but that’s okay. Apply a structural tension chart to all of your primary choices and make sure the habit loop is in place for each secondary choice you commit to.
There Is Hope
Habits take, on average, more than two months to create—66 days to be exact. I’m not saying it’s easy…I’m saying it’s possible. And with the right planning and support (get an accountability partner!), it gets much easier. Start small, go slowly, be consistent, and don’t ever give up!
If you or someone you know needs information, guidance or help with these issues please feel free to contact Chapin & Russell Associates at (309) 681-5850 for assistance.