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How To Build And Maintain Healthy Habits: Habit Loops And Formation

Habits are formed by repetition; behaviours become automatic and tend to occur without much thought. Often, unhealthy habits can develop without you being aware or intending to acquire them. Luckily with repetition and attention, we can deliberately cultivate habits in alignment with our personal goals and values.

Understanding habit loops is fundamental to creating, fostering or eliminating habits,

Habit Loops

Every habit formation begins with a psychological 'habit loop,' which consists of a three-step process. First, the process starts with a cue, trigger, or reminder. This initial message tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let the instinctual behaviour unfold.

Next, the routine or behaviour itself unfolds before the final step of the loop, the reward. The reward is something your brain positively responds too that causes it to remember the habit loop and automatically implement it in the future.

How Habits Work

If you think habit formation happens in the decision-making part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, think again. Surprisingly, neuroscientists have tracked these habit-making behaviours to the basal ganglia part of our brain; this is the part of the brain responsible for developing emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. 

The prefrontal cortex goes into a 'sleep mode' when habits are occurring, which explains why habits can occur without thought or a decision-making process. That is why habits take place automatically, and we're often unaware of them!

As habits are consistently repeated and become part of our routine, they require less and less thought, and we can eventually go into almost a mental sleep state when they occur. This is why it can be so hard to break a habit, as more often than not, we are not being mindful when they are happening!

How To Replace A Bad Habit With A Healthy One

Since habits dictate quite a large portion of our lives and can take hold automatically without conscious decision-making, it is essential to make an effort to build habits to support our goals, values and health. 

Start by being mindful. List your current habits, identify which ones you would like to change and identify their triggers. Next, select new behaviours you would like to foster to replace unhealthy or unhealthy ones - always start with the main motivation, your reason, or how this new healthy habit can help you become the person you want to be. 

Start small and work through your goals with purposeful repetition and mindfulness. Allow slip-ups (you're human!). Finally, don't give up and reward yourself for your effort!

The key to forming and maintaining a habit is repetition. Repeat all stages of the habit loop, so your brain eventually performs the loop as an automatic behaviour and no longer requires effort and mindfulness to enact it!


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NPR: Habits:How They Form And How To Break Them

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