The Power of Habit

By now, it is likely many New Year’s resolutions have been broken. I say this not to shame people, but to start a dialogue. In fact, the phenomena of a failed resolution are so prevalent in our culture we see jokes about it on TV, memes and from our own friends. While I appreciate a good joke, I wish we would ask the question of why does this happen? Scientifically speaking, a cultural phenomenon like this has a cause, and that cause is not laziness, poor willpower, or anything like that; resolutions fail because individuals do not understand the power of habit. 

Habits are defined as “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior”, so any activity you do on a recurring basis. Scrolling your phone in bed before getting up, going to the gym, snacking while watching TV, or reading a book to your kids. Habits can be good or bad. 

Habits have a process that goes like this: 

Trigger  >  Routine  >  Reward 

Your kids see it is almost bed time (Trigger). They expect a bed time story (Routine) where they get to spend time with you and stay up past bedtime (Reward). Every habit we have is governed by this process; therefore, on New Years Eve when you say, “I’ll stop smoking”, not only are you battling the highly addictive substance of nicotine, you are also combatting a routine/reward cycle that your brain has created: You feel stressed (Trigger) so you have a cigarette (Routine), and this calms you (Reward). 

Now that you have an understanding of the Trigger > Routine > Reward process, you can begin to reframe your habits. When you stop one routine, you need to fill it with another that gives you a reward equal to or greater than the reward the old routine gave you. If you smoke to reduce stress, you need to find another routine that has a similar reward (reduced stress). If you do not plan routines that offer similar or better rewards you will have difficulty in overcoming your habits. 

It is also vital to understand the triggers for your habits. I recommend journaling to help you with this. When you find yourself wanting to take part in a habit you would like to quit, write down what is making you want to partake in the habit. Did something stress you out, or are you hungry or tired? By writing down your triggers over a period of time, you will begin to see patterns. Then you can find ways to avoid those triggers and break these patterns. 

The reward part of the process is also critical, since it’s why you seek out the routine! When you journal about your triggers, also write down the reward you receive. After you engage in your routine, how do you feel? What reward have you taken from that routine? Going forward, how can you receive this reward that your brain craves in a healthier way? 

Keep in mind some concerns may need professional intervention to break such as addiction, mental health concerns and trauma. For these, please seek out the help of a qualified medical professional.