When you come right down to it, the major part of living a healthy life boils down to developing good habits and weaning yourself off the bad ones. When you’ve got a routine that incorporates the essentials – good nutrition, movement and stress management – and dispenses with, for instance, regular desserts or alcohol or hours of streaming and bingeing as your unconscious default, you’re in business. This doesn’t count as a revelation – good habits are good for you, bad habits are bad.
But, it’s the next step, the “how,” that isn’t so obvious – what are the best ways to internalize those healthy habits and rid yourself of the compunction to do the unhealthy things? Fortunately for us, the latest brain science merges with the wisdom of Eastern mindfulness to provide us with a reliable user manual on how to turn up the positive habits and turn down the bad.
Here’s the topline on how you can guide the brain to help you live your best life.
What are “habits” anyway?
Habits are your brain on auto-pilot. By repeating a particular action over and over, you clear a path in the brain that connects a bunch of neurons, a so-called neural network, that efficiently tells your body to do that particular thing. The more well-worn that path, the less of a stimulus you need from the outside world to trigger that particular behavior. And many of the things we do in a given day are habitual, which, for the most part, is fortunate. Do we, every morning, engage in mental debate about the pros and cons of toothbrushing? No, we just do it. That’s when you know a healthy activity has become a habit, when you don’t have to waste time thinking about it.
When healthy behaviors become habits
But when we decide to make healthy behavior a new habit, your brain is not your friend, not at first. Let’s say you decide to take your trainer up on his recommendation that you do regular body-weight squats to build up core strength. Well, your do-squats neural pathway is seriously underdeveloped and if you have to have a mental debate every day about whether you really want to do squats, or if you simply forget to think about the squats at all, your prospects are not good. Neuropsychologists recommend something they call “stacking,” in other words, pairing (or “stacking”) the new activity with a pleasant habitual one, basically piggybacking off the well-developed neural pathways of the latter. Maybe you have a favorite podcast or TV program you watch regularly (whether that’s Ari Melber on MSNBC or Golden Girl re-runs is your business). Make doing crunches while listening or watching part of your new enhanced routine “stack, to help make it stick .
Everything, everywhere all at once?
Probably the most common mistake my patients make when they see the wisdom of a healthier lifestyle is trying to change up everything all at once. Usually, that just overloads the neural circuits. My advice is to commit to change in steps, if necessary, baby steps. Once you feel confident that a new behavior has become routine, let’s say loading up on fresh veggies every dinner, then you’re ready to take on a new one. Be sure to give careful thought to the order of the things you want to change. Think of it as triage. Let’s say you (and maybe your doctor) have decided that more movement is what your body most needs. Concentrate your energy on adding a long walk or an exercise class to your daily schedule. Or maybe for you it makes more sense to commit to a smaller, easier change, like taking a quick spin on a stationary bike between Zoom calls, in order to build up the momentum you need to tackle the tougher stuff down the road.
Think your way through bad habits.
When we’re building good habits, we want to think as little as possible. When we’re trying to extinguish bad habits, it’s exactly the opposite. We want to interrupt automatic behavior by opening the window to the brain and letting the light of conscious thinking in: “I don’t really need a drink at this party just because everybody else seems to have one” or “I don’t really need dessert after a satisfying dinner just because I grew up doing that.” There’s a fascinating mouse study by some University of California San Diego researchers studying the brain chemistry driving (human) addiction. They discovered this push me/pull-you in the mouse brains between the endocannabinoid system, the pleasure circuits that help govern habitual action, and the prefrontal cortex region involved in decision-making. So, in neurological terms, when you stop yourself from mindlessly grabbing a drink at a party and mindfully consider the consequences, you’re lighting up that prefrontal cortex and yanking the action out of the habitual and into the conscious.
The mindfulness tradition had it right.
The take-away from the UCSD brain researchers would be no surprise to the Buddhist thinkers who passed down to us what we now call “mindfulness,” which has become an important element of our current addiction therapies. The ancients had a similar objective, to interrupt the progression from an initial emotional reaction (anger, craving, lust, envy…fill in the blanks) to the behavior that follows. Their prescription: by quieting the mind through meditation, you create a space between the emotion and a deeper underlying sense of self. You are not the negative emotion and you don’t have to be ruled by it.
Just say no to just saying no.
The venerable Buddhists and today’s cognitive-behavioral psychologists would agree that the bumper-sticker formulation, “Just say no,” doesn’t cut it when we’re trying to eliminate, or at any rate, reduce bad habits, whether we’re talking a sweet tooth or an opioid addiction. Willpower, by itself, isn’t much of a strategy. But we do have access to a battery of techniques that can help interrupt and short-circuit what the brain scientists would call bad-habit neural circuits.
Change your environment
Especially when you’re dealing with a strong craving, sometimes it’s a better first move to identify your triggers and change your daily routine than to attempt to re-wire your brain right away. If your regular walking route takes you by a bakery with especially delicious-looking baked goods on display, consider a new route! Over time, maybe you can substitute a healthier alternative to a bag of croissants. Maybe a handful of nuts can give your brain a good-enough pleasure jolt of dopamine for you to be able to walk by the bakery without having to white-knuckle it. Along the same lines, sometimes you can replace a “bad” activity with something completely different, that delights your senses in a new way. For instance, if you feel the urge, after a long day and nice dinner, to settle into the couch with the TV remote and some snacks, that would be an excellent time to take a walk around the neighborhood, paying close attention to the cool evening breeze or the seasonal foliage. If bedtime isn’t far off, you might take a hot shower or a relaxing bath to let the cares of the day drain away and set yourself up for a sound sleep.
Surf the urge.
Sometimes a simple time-out is all we need to avoid falling back into the grip of a bad habit. Cravings are strongest when they first arise, when that croissant can seem positively irresistible. But for most of us, it’s not. If we’ve made a mental bargain with ourselves beforehand, to wait, say ten minutes, before making a decision on giving or not giving in, we’ll often find the tempting object loses much of its power over us. Psychologists sometimes call this “surfing the urge.”
Check in with your deepest motivation.
Whether we’re talking about developing good habits or getting rid of bad ones, it’s always empowering to take a minute every so often and really check in with why we’re changing our health habits. The deeper and more specific the motivation, the better the chance we’ll stay the course. In other words, don’t be satisfied with: “I want to eat and exercise better because my doctor says it’s good for my cardiovascular system.” Instead: “Twenty years from now, I want to be around to play with my grandchildren.”
It’s not “all or nothing.”
Over the years, I’ve discovered that few things set up my patients for failure more reliability than perfectionism. It’s that unforgiving inner voice that says, “If I’ve gained back five pounds of the twenty I lost, I might as well forget the whole thing.” I tell them, upgrading your lifestyle is rarely an all-or-nothing proposition. Set-backs are inevitable – we’re human after all – and one of the most powerful allies we can have on our journey is self-compassion. So give yourself a brief brake, a bit of grace and get back on track.