Habit Change, For Good

A couple of years ago I had difficulty sleeping. I would find myself awake in the middle of the night, thinking about work, unable to go back to sleep. And sometimes, just falling asleep was hard because my brain was still buzzing from the day.

So I picked up a new habit.

I started listening to podcasts in bed. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, I would be asleep. The moment my brain was able to relax and not think about work, I would head off into the Land of Nod.

While this was effective at solving my insomnia, I find myself today with two consequences:

  1. I have rewired my brain to know that it’s time to sleep the moment a podcast comes on.
  2. When I listen to podcasts while driving, I want to fall asleep. Fortunately, I don’t do a lot of driving.

The point is, the brain is amazing and it loves habits. It wants to form them. Once a habit is set, the brain knows what is expected of it, and it can essentially kick back and conserve energy until called upon for something more challenging. Most parents will remember that having a routine and introducing a series of habits and patterns helps a young child know what to expect next. Throw the routine out of the window, and there goes your full night of sleep.

So how do we change a habit when it’s so deeply ingrained?

Here’s how habits work: Cue - Routine - Reward

We need to recognize the cue and keep a reward of some sort, but change the routine – our action needs to be different. If we only apply willpower to change our habits — by constantly saying no when we clearly expect to perform an action — the constant denial brings frustration, which ultimately breaks most of us down.

New, healthier habits are so easy to pick up, as long as we remember that the brain loves habits and loves a reward. The reward doesn’t have to be ice cream after dinner. Make the new reward enjoying a fridge-cold orange after your meal, or a glass of seltzer water with a twist of lime instead of the evening cocktail. The first few days are hard. They are. But if we are consistent, the brain will pick up our modified action as the new habit and be even happier.