How to Form a Good Habit
Here’s how not to put yourself on an exercise regimen: by making a firm resolution, gritting your teeth each day through a 45 minute workout, then grimly enduring a salad.
Jason Gots is a New York-based writer, editor, and podcast producer. For Big Think, he writes (and sometimes illustrates) the blog "Overthinking Everything with Jason Gots" and is the creator and host of the "Think Again" podcast. In previous lives, Jason worked at Random House Children's Books, taught reading and writing to middle schoolers and community college students, co-founded a theatre company (Rorschach, in Washington, D.C.), and wrote roughly two dozen picture books for kids learning English in Seoul, South Korea. He is also the proud father of an incredibly talkative and crafty little kid.
What's the Big Idea?
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “good habits,” I involuntarily wince. Most of us first learn about the importance of good habits (their magical power to keep us out of jail, the poorhouse, etc) from our parents. What’s often left out is the instructional piece. We learn that good habits are good, but not necessarily how to develop them.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, acclaimed journalist Charles Duhigg investigates the neuroscience of habit and explains how habit loops are formed in the brain. Because these loops – comprised of cue (“hmm, it’s 3 pm...cookie time!”), routine (Go to cabinet. Eat cookie.), and reward (Yummy cookie dopamine rush, fun break room chat with colleagues dopamine rush . . .) – become neurologically hardwired over time, they’re easier to rewire, slotting in other elements, than to drop entirely.
But let’s say I’ve managed to kick my 3pm cookie habit, and I’m ready to take things to the next level by initiating a rigorous daily exercise regimen. Want to know how not to go about it? By making a resolution, then gritting your teeth each day through a 45 minute workout, then grimly enduring a salad. Yet this is how many people approach forming a new, good habit, and why most of them fail.
[VIDEO] Charles Duhigg on how to form a good habit
For the habit to stick, the reward part of cue – routine – reward, says Duhigg, can’t come six weeks later when you step on a scale. It has to be immediate. Instead of a salad, Duhigg suggests rewarding yourself with a small piece of chocolate after a workout (if you like chocolate. If not, then a beer perhaps.) This should be sufficient to make exercise something your brain looks forward to, rather than something it dreads and will invent any possible excuse to avoid.
It’s a little embarrassing to realize that our sophisticated brain is so easily fooled. The exercise doesn’t cause the chocolate bar to appear, but the association is formed nonetheless. Give it a try. The next time you hear the word gym you might just start salivating.
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