“The reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. “
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Not working out had become a habit by the time I first landed myself in the hospital. It was never intentional, of course, but when life decides you have other priorities, you listen.
I was young, in school and trying to balance everything left over from adolescence with all that adulthood throws at you. Not only was I working to pay for the basics, but I was struggling with mental health issues and barely staying afloat in my classes. I had seen doctors of every band in the rainbow, only to end up feeling the same: depressed, fatigued and fed up.
If I was going to change something in my life— reduce my medications, increase my energy levels, establish better self-discipline—I had to be the one to do it. It took months of scouring the internet and talking to holistic health professionals to find even a semblance of hope that I could do it. What I didn’t know was that many of my problems could be remedied by making simple changes in my daily life that would allow me to take control of the instinctual side of my brain, and override the bad habits that kept me from truly growing. I had a laundry list of things I wanted to work on, but every time I’d try tackling my personal development, I would fail miserably.
What was I missing?
Shoehorning good habits into a mess of bad ones will only get you so far. Most habits work on a loop as detailed by MIT researchers in 1990 and again by Duhigg in 2014, which consists of three simple components: the trigger, the action, the reward. Sounds simple, right? On paper, it is. But your brain is a lazy, stubborn toddler in the cockpit of a jet on autopilot. If you want it to do anything aside from following the path it’s already set on, you have to take over the controls. This can be especially difficult when you are dealing with illness or disability that affects your motivation, but that is the key here. Your brain needs different motivators than you, more primal ones. This is how I made my medicine do just a little less work in treating my depression— just enough to get my head above water and start positive change in my life.
I was trying to include so many good habits in my life to build a routine, but I always fell off the horse because I was only doing half the work. Adding good habits will lead nowhere if you do not address the bad habits as well. For me, working out at one point finally became a habit, but I was still drinking alcohol on the weekends, eating greasy foods on “cheat days” and slacking off when I realized all I needed to do was go to the gym to feel like I’d accomplished something.
But I realized something by tracking my habits over the course of a month: my brain was the lazy one, not me. As a result, I started looking for the triggers in my life that were already established. For example, when I woke up in the morning, I always brushed my teeth and showered first. Simple, right? Well, the difficulty came in trying to reshape that habit; I told myself that in between these two activities, I would add another habit. Something small, not too intimidating.
I started by doing ten sit-ups in between my teeth-brushing and shower-taking for 1 week. Then I bumped it up to two weeks. Then I added a few push-ups. I kept up until two months in I had a full workout I could do in 15 minutes after waking up.
I had difficulty sleeping a full eight hours some nights, and would only get a solid three in some nights. 1 month in, I was at least getting 7 hours a night every night. I tried identifying some of my bad habits as this took root; why was I still having drinks in the bar, when I didn’t even like alcohol? The club scen was a trigger that told my brain it was time to drink. The reward? All that sweet, sweet, dopamine rushing into the reward center of my lazy brain. The parts of the brain responsible for registering ‘rewards’ such as those resultant of habitual activity are separate from those that handle ‘like’ vs. ‘dislike’. In other words, rewards are not always pleasurable to us, but if we’ve been wired to keep running the same mouse maze, we won’t stop until something either changes that reward, eliminates that reward or replaces it.
I chose the latter. By introducing good habits around already established ones and actively searching for those negative rewards that kept me in this destructive loop, I started to gain control of my life in ways I never had before. I now run my own blog, have a large portfolio of work thanks to associating my cheat foods with productivity, and work out almost every day. I learn about my habits every day by staying cognizant of negative rewards and telling my toddler brain that I am in the driver’s seat and I am in control.
That hospital visit helped me greatly by limiting my access to those negative rewards during my stay. I adhere strictly to the plan of care that my doctor and I have developed, but that now looks worlds different from it did before. I don’t advocate anyone check themselves in just to start working out, but if you can practice a little mindfulness in your day and introduce a little bit of change slowly, you will reap amazing rewards.