Insight Mind Body Talk: Habit Hacks – The Psychology of Making or Breaking a Habit

Mind Body Talk is a body-based mental health podcast. Whether you’ve tried everything to feel better and something is still missing or you’ve already discovered the wisdom of the body. This podcast will encourage and support you in healing old wounds, strengthening relationships, and developing your inner potential- all by accessing the mind body connection. 

Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk. 

Today, Jess and I are going to tackle the topic of habits. We’ll talk about Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, James Clear and Atomic Habits, and Jen Sincero and Badass Habits.  

Why do you think that people are so interested in reading about habits, Jess? 

We all have information at our fingertips. We can research how to change our lives. We know what we need to do, and we often have a hard time implementing things long-term. That makes us want to figure out why it’s so hard. Why do the new habits I’ve started fall to the wayside?  

As human beings, we can experience shame with that failure and other feelings that are uncomfortable, and it increases suffering. I think we’re trying to figure out ways to alleviate suffering and live our best lives. The way we can do that is by looking at our habits because 43% of what we do on a daily basis is habitual. That’s pretty powerful. If you want to change your life, what are your habits?  

It goes all the way back to Aristotle. Allegedly his quote was “we are what we repeatedly do.” This is really about who we are as people, it’s striking into the character part of us. It’s something we think we can’t change but we can change it with pretty small tweaks. 

We’re going to talk about some things that might be helpful in making changes in our lives.  

Jeanne, how would you define a habit?  

Well, I tend to think of it as an unconscious thing, something that we do on autopilot, without getting our decision-making brain involved.  

Let’s think about habits that we have that might be survival-based. Our brains are always scanning for safety. When you walk into a dark room, what do you do? You turn on a light switch. Do you even think about it? No. It’s your survival brain. You were definitely on autopilot. Prefrontal cortex not involved. Your thinking brain was not involved, you were very much in your survival brain.  

We could think of many examples, but what we’re talking about today is creating things that can become automatic that we know can serve our higher self, not just that survival part. 

Think about some things that you’ve intentionally changed. I can think of something that has to do with dental hygiene. I was taught to brush my teeth, but I didn’t floss. Then I had this dentist tell me that if you don’t start flossing, you’re going to lose your teeth by the time you’re 30. Talk about motivation. I had to intentionally put the floss next to the toothpaste so every night I would floss. It took me years to get into a flossing habit. Now it is religious. I floss daily. All because there was that motivation, I don’t want to lose my teeth. 

Can you think of anything like that in your life that you’ve intentionally changed? 

I think of my skincare routine. I had some lovely girlfriends say, Jess, I think you need a different skincare routine. Then, trying to implement the skincare routine has taken a lot of work. Now, I’m really proud to say that now, no matter what, I’m the girl who’s washing her face in ice cold water, and then putting on my eye cream and working in serums and misting my face. It’s really important to me. Knowing that consistency is key, it’s something that I’m really proud that I’ve been able to integrate into my life. It has become a habit of mine.  

I heard pride in there as being one of the rewards. I’m guessing a lovely skin tone is another one? It is. It takes actual mindful attention because I’m tired at night. There’s quite a bit of psychology when it comes to that, but now it is more of an automatic routine.  

Habit psychology. There’s a lot written on this. We are creatures of habit. We are wired for survival. I don’t know about you, but I’ve accumulated a few things that aren’t serving me through this pandemic while we’ve been separated and working from home. 

We tend to use the change of seasons as the time to think about what could be better for us. What could we change? What could we add? What could we subtract? We can look at this in terms of psychology. Charles Duhigg, a journalist, wrote a really good book called The Power of Habit. He talks about three steps of the habit loop. First, a cue or a trigger. Then, we have the behavior that happens afterwards. Finally, we get that reward, that dopamine hit. Cue, behavior, reward becomes automatic after a while. 

Research shows that it’s much easier to keep a habit that we enjoy versus something that’s good for us. 

I’ve read so many things, buzzwords like 21 days to a new you. There’s not really anything that supports the 21 days thing. I’ve read, 21 days, 30 days, 60 days, Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours of practice to master a habit or master a skill. There isn’t a magic number for this. It took me years to get into flossing. It’s unique to every person. There isn’t any magic number. Again, like we do start to wear a groove in our brain after a while. Neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in our brains, have a huge role in this. 

We’re trying to take that thinking brain out of it and really get into our movement brain. The habit psychology and neurology of this have to do with our basal ganglia, which is really deep in our brains. They are structures that have to do with controlling our voluntary movement. It’s the movement part of the brain, not the prefrontal cortex. Procedural learning in a way. Our brains recall what we’ve done in the past in order to keep us safe in the future and habits are procedural learning. 

Most of us know how to ride a bike. We practice as kids, and it becomes second nature. You can go 10 years without riding your bike and hop on and your brain knows what to do. There’s a YouTube video where he flips the handlebars around and no one can ride a bike. Suddenly, your brain has to think about what’s happening because it’s not the pattern that it’s used to.  

To me it brings up self-compassion and grace. So many people come to me as a personal trainer to try to work through patterns that don’t serve them anymore and if it doesn’t stick immediately, there’s a lot of self-judgment, a lot of shame and a lot of stories. It takes a long time to build those new neural pathways. It takes a long time to build myelination.  

I love that you mentioned self-compassion. Even that is something you have to practice. Offering a sense of trying to do something hard and giving myself a break and not judging myself. We don’t place our value on whether or not we can make habits stick. Practicing self-compassion is a habit in and of itself.  

To challenge that negative self-talk and replace it with something else is something we have to be mindful of. One of the ways you can change a habit is by bringing a level of mindful awareness to it in a way that you can befriend what’s happening versus judge it.  

Mindful awareness is how we know what needs changing. We have to know we’re out of balance in order to bring ourselves into balance. We have to do that self-study to learn what bad habits I want to change. 

Some are really obvious. We know you shouldn’t smoke. What do I need to do to quit smoking? As therapists we can tell people, I think you should meditate, exercise, etc., but a person needs to have that self-awareness to know what’s going to be best for them to have the internal drive to make changes.  

Changing a bad habit is different from introducing a new one. Let’s talk about changing a bad habit. 

If you want to do it in a holistic way, you need to do the internal work. Work with the different parts of yourself in a way that brings in positive intention. Maybe we say smoking is a bad habit, but there are parts of us who really align with that smoking habit and those parts are trying to do something good for you. 

When we think about the different parts of who we are, we always need to take into consideration that they’re always trying to help us find regulation. They’re always trying to help us feel safe.  

We work with the parts who are really on board with that bad habit. What do they feel they’re helping you with? What are they scared of? If you let go of the habit, what is their worst fear? Have a dialogue with them so that they understand that it’ll be okay. Maybe that part gets to have a new job. It’s good to go internal with those parts who are sabotaging or continuing a bad habit. Again, we’ve created these habits in response to something. Maybe we light a cigarette because it’s the way that we learn to calm our bodies when we’re in an arousal state, when we’re hypervigilant. Welcome that part and see what it has to say and see what it’s to change. 

We have to really think about why we have that habit? But also, if we are what we repeatedly do, do we want to be the person who is short of breath? Do we want to be the person who has little power over this? What is the identity that we want to have? Think bigger picture.  

Dr. Wendy Wood, the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, brought up a great idea she called friction. If you have a bad habit, can you make it harder to do that? If there is a habit you want to add, can you make it easier to do that habit? You can play with friction.  

What is the friction that you can create for yourself? It’s not having the cigarettes next to you when you wake up in the morning if you’re trying to quit smoking.  

If you want to get up and get on your yoga mat in the morning, make it really attractive. Have it right there, rolled out for you. Have your meditation cushion there and happy things that you enjoy around it. That’s a reward in itself. That will get you there a lot more consistently. 

Don’t over-complicate it like, I’ll go to the gym and take my vitamins. That’s doing two things. Neither will happen. It’s too much for your brain to change at once. When you are building a habit, habit stacking is a good strategy. Habit stacking is when you pair things to make sure they happen. It’s a great idea to pair it with something that’s already a habit.  

If you’re working on one thing and pair it with something else you want to work on, that can create a freeze response. It can be too much, and we’ll start avoiding. Then we don’t work on anything. Essentially, the body and the brain cannot integrate all of that at once. It’s just like somebody who’s like, I’m going to go work out and you go to the gym and hurt yourself right away because you’re not conditioned. Your body’s not conditioned. Same thing with your brain. Your brain is not going to absorb a lot of changes at once.  

Let’s talk about how we create a new habit. It’s simple and yet so challenging. 

Going back to cue, response, and reward. If I use my happy light every day for a week, then I’ll treat myself to a massage. It’s important to set yourself up for success and be realistic.  

What motivates you? 

There’s an article called ‘What is the pain that you’re willing to sustain?’ The idea is that working on goals can be hard. You need to find a way to enjoy the struggle. It’s a lot easier to make something automatic if you can find enjoyment in it. 

For example, movement is something that I have to work on because when I become stressed, my system freezes and shuts down. Even though I know movement is important and helps me manage my stress, I tend to freeze. 

Throughout my life, I could never quite create a habit around movement until I found weightlifting. There’s something about lifting weights, the pain of it, the hard work of it, is very enjoyable for me. I love every moment of it and that’s why I continue to go back to it.  

You need to also be regulated for habits to stick. When I’m not regulated after 7:30 PM, I like to go to sleep. I’m not going to go take an eight o’clock dance class, even though I love dancing. That’s just not going to work for me because I’m tired. If you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, HALT. If I’m any of those things, I’m not going to make a habit stick. I’m not going to perform. My brain’s just not going to absorb it.  

I’ve tried for years to like running. I hate it. My body doesn’t want to do it. You know what I like to do? I like dancing. It doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s an easier habit for me to engage in. And yoga. I love yoga. I’m much more likely to stick to a habit that involves something I really like and I can still get endorphins from. I don’t have to get endorphins from running. I’ve worked on self-compassion enough that I can say, that’s great for you. It’s not for me. Instead of thinking I should be out there. Shaming myself into it is not going to help a habit stick. It becomes a threat, and our survival strategy kicks in. 

One of the tactile things I like to do is tracking what I’m doing. There are journals that create a theme for the month. You pick, maybe, five habits and color code it. It’s a huge dopamine hit for me to be able to notice that I did my PT 50% of the time this month, look at all that blue. I love that kind of self-monitoring. That’s what works for me. It’s accountability for myself.  

What would you say for people who don’t feel that they have a lot of internal motivation or even, for example, ADHD. When you have ADHD, there’s usually a low level of internal pressure or internal motivation. What are some external strategies that can help people create or sustain a new habit? 

Again, self study. We have to know ourselves. We have to know what motivates us. Some people are really motivated by money. If that’s the thing you’re motivated by then you might want to, put an incentive there. If I keep up this habit then I’m going to buy myself a new outfit from Athleta. Put a little bit of energy toward it. Getting to know yourself and what really motivates you is so important.  

When I put something on my schedule and accomplish it, that feels really good to me. I’m motivated to accomplish those little squares on my calendar. I will write everything I’ve accomplished and the things I want to do so that I can get the satisfaction of that checkbox. 

A lot of the things that I do are motivated by regulating my body. I’ve spent years dysregulated. When you get a taste of what regulation and ventral vagal feels like, and start to see that being in that place changes your relationships and your work and how you feel at the end of the day. That’s motivating. I move my body for the regulation. That brings me into a place of feeling like I’m my true self, more than anything else.  

My biggest motivator is to tap into that self-energy where I’m calm and curious and playful and connected. That motivates almost everything and is a result of all the habits that I’ve incorporated up to this point. 

It’s so exciting that we can introduce healthy changes at any age. I often think of the saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You actually can change. The brain is plastic and practice makes plastic. We can change our brains with intention.  

We believe in being a guide for people and having a person to walk on this path with us. Whether it’s a big change or a small change, Starting a relationship with a therapist can be really transformational, but also doing self-study. There’s a lot of hope out there. 

I hope this episode is a little bit of a hack for people to skip through all the science and get some tips and also remember to be compassionate towards themselves 

Thank you.