If you have ever tried to adhere to a new diet or start an exercise program, you have probably experienced the frustration involved in trying to overhaul anything in life you have become accustomed to. It’s been said that humans are creatures of habit, and it’s quite true. Things that seem like they should be simple or easy to incorporate into our schedules somehow become arduous when we attempt to do them regularly instead of on occasion. No matter how much conscious effort we put into changing ourselves, it often seems to have no effect. So it might not come as much of a surprise that often, very little of the conscious mind is involved in how we structure our daily lives.

With so much information to process and so many decisions to make on a day to day basis, the human brain has learned to delegate many of the things we do to a sort of autopilot. Even patients with severe memory problems have displayed an ability to ingrain new information in this autopilot function, so while it may be related to the experiences of one’s life, it is governed by separate processes. This function is borne out as habits or routines that we play out constantly. The brain decides upon a  starting cue to trigger the routine after it’s been played out a few times, and a reward cue to stop the routine when it’s no longer needed, leaving a person’s focus and brainpower free to put towards other problems.

But of course, if that was all there was to our mental routines, it would be much easier than it is to add healthy habits to our lives. When we start going to the gym or taking daily walks, we are actually trying to interrupt and halt our old routines at the same time as we are adding new ones, which is much more difficult than simply forming a habit to begin with. Once a routine has been formed, the brain keeps it on file for easy access, since that was the point of making it in the first place. However much we may genuinely want to reach for an apple instead of the potato chips, we’ve already taught ourselves to make a beeline for the salty, greasy snack when we get puckish. Often it ends up being more a question of altering existing habits than creating them from scratch.

For any change to occur, it’s important to identify the entirety of the habit loop you want to focus on. Identifying the cue for the routine to begin lets you identify how often and in what situations will provoke that routine; when trying to stop an unhealthy habit, knowing that cue can even help you avoid provoking the routine at all. Similarly, knowing the reward you’re seeking can help in transferring how your routine is focused. The “reward” may not be what you think, as well; if you stop at the donut shop in the morning, you could be looking for food, or you could be seeking human contact, or you could be taking a break from your commute. Testing small alterations to how your routine plays out can help you pinpoint what you’re seeking.

Of course, it can also be very helpful to use tools and structures designed to assist you in your habits. This can be as simple as writing down your goals for the week and how you plan to accomplish them, or keeping a detailed schedule. Still, in the age of smartphones and mobile apps, there are plenty of other tools at your disposal. Setting timers can help you carve out some periods for specific tasks, but there are also entire sites devoted to finding an easy way to structure yourself and encouraging you to stay mindful of your routines long enough to cultivate the ones you want, such as HabitRPG. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is often easiest to discard old habits and create new ones during a period of major change, such as a big move or a new marriage, while your brain is still figuring out how best to cope with the alterations in your life.

Still, even with all the tools in the world at your disposal to alter your daily life, it’s important to remember that while we can encourage or discourage our routines to form in certain ways, it is nevertheless not entirely in our conscious control. Belief in one’s ability to change is an important component of enacting that change, but even so you may not be successful on the first attempt, or the fifth, or even further than that. All that can be done is to approach the changes you wish to make at different times and in different ways, until you find the method that works best for you personally.







Duhigg, Charles. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House.

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OVERCOMING THE DIET ROLLER-COASTER by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Elektra Christensen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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