What’s the Deal with Habit? How Habits Work and How to Apply this Knowledge for Lasting Change in Your Life
By: Erika Fehrenbach Prell
Did you know that habits are actually an important evolution of brain function? The brain likes to make any routine into a habit to save effort. This allows the brain to take a break and not have to think about these basic behaviors. This ability is one of the differences between human brains and animal brains. The brain connects a sequence of actions into an automatic routine; these routines become our habits. By understanding how habits develop, you can develop strategies to work with your brain, instead of against it, which will increase your success in changing your habits and behaviors.
There is a 3 step cycle to habit formation. There is a cue, which tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Next comes the routine, which are the actions triggered by the cue. These actions can be physical, mental, or emotional. Not all habits are doing something; they can be a feeling that is triggered instead. The final piece is the reward, which is what we get after the routine is carried out. This helps your brain decide if this cycle is worth remembering; so, a better reward might increase the chance a habit forms. With repetition and time this behavior cycle becomes automatic, resulting in a habit. Because it is automatic, the brain stops actively thinking or decision making. Unless you do something to actively interrupt the habit cycle, the pattern happens automatically. Since habits are set brain pathways, they cannot be erased. Try as you might, once a habit is formed, it is there for good. Do not let this discourage you! It is possible to modify the habit. Two ways to do this would be to attach a new behavior to an established habit, or you can keep the same cue and reward but modify the routine or action.
Habits are a key piece when it comes to change. In the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, he describes there are 3 levels of change. Here’s an analogy to help describe this. Imagine an onion with three layers; these three layers represent these 3 levels of change. The outermost layer and most superficial level is the outcomes level; this focuses on results and what you get from an action. The middle layer is the processes level; this focuses on what you do and the systems you have in place. This is where many habits are formed. And, the innermost layer is the identity level; this is what you believe, both about yourself and your situation. The deeper the layer, the stronger commitment to changing the behavior.
The level of change analogy combined with the stages of change model give amazing insight on how to use your mindset to your advantage when trying to change a behavior. Let’s look at an example. Say you want to eat healthier. During the contemplation stage, or thinking about change stage, you brainstorm all the reasons why this is a good idea like losing weight, decreasing heart disease, decreasing blood pressure, reducing your risk of diabetes, and consuming less preservatives and additives.You start to prepare for the change by goal setting, meal planning, researching new recipes, and finding an accountability group online. You move into the action phase and put your plans into motion. Everything is going well for a few weeks. You have lost weight, you feel better, and you realize that this is not as hard as you thought. But, something strange happens! Old habits start creeping in. Things like getting fast food one night or having ice cream at night with the justification that it is “just this time”; before you have gotten close to the maintenance stage, where a new behavior has stuck and is just what you do, you have slid backwards into relapse and your old behaviors.
Sound familiar? What went wrong?
This is where the levels of change gives great insight into your mindset. During this example, most of the change in behavior was focused around outcomes and results, with hitting goals in mind. Once those goals were hit in the form of seeing results from losing weight and feeling better, your resolve to continue the change starts to weaken because this is not a deep commitment to the change; your brain is thinking “success! I did it”. A few of the changes might have touched on changing processes, and, ultimately, revising a habit. However, the slide back to old behaviors happened before a modified, or new, habit pattern could be established. The issue? The change did not hit the inner level, which is the most important, of identity and belief. For a change to really happen, you have to shift your belief. In this case, if you have not identified yourself as a healthy person, the foundation you are building your change strategy on is shaky at best! This is the key; change your belief, change your results.
Changing your mindset will not happen overnight. Fortunately, unlike habits, your mindset is not fixed. You can, and should, continually work on shifting your mindset and belief to support the new behavior change. As you start having success with your behavior change, your confidence will increase along with your belief. Strategies to help your mindset could include the following:
I am sure you have heard the quote from Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is Power”. It is simple but very true. Understanding how habits are formed, then using this knowledge, you can more successfully create the change you want to see in your life. Above all, enjoy the journey! Habits and the motivations behind them are unique to the individual, therefore, the exact strategy will be as well. This journey to change is sure to bring you insight and a deeper understanding of self. Shine on!
By Jackie White
This month’s Life Story features Lori Tillock, CEO of Culinary Communications by trade and a wife, mom and friend by heart. She has been married to her husband Brad for 23 years and has 3 beautiful children Alex 17, Katie 14 and Xiang Bo 13.
Childhood and Purpose
Many times One’s passions in life can be traced back to things you liked to do in childhood. This was the case for Lori Tillock. Lori grew up cooking alongside her mom. They made new recipes together, baked and enjoyed the process of creating delicious dishes. Lori’s mom was not only an accomplished cook and baker she was actually employed in a test kitchen working on recipe development. Lori found that she shared her mom’s passion for cooking, baking and recipe development.
When Lori went off to college at the University of Illinois at Champaign, choosing a major was easy for her. She followed her passion in cooking. She chose to major in food and business and also in dietetics. Since she was so clearly focused, she took on several internships at large food companies such as Betty Crocker and Brachs. She even won a coveted internship with Pillsbury working on their Pillsbury Bake-Off. She found these real-life experiences very helpful because she got to know people were employed in her chosen field. These mentors were a great help as she focused in on her career path.
She began her professional career at UW Hospitals in Madison, Wisconsin, where she was a dietetic intern. She realized that once in that role, she preferred to be back in the kitchens developing recipes. She shifted sails and found herself employed in the Oscar Mayer test kitchens. She stayed with Oscar Mayer and, eventually, Kraft Foods for over 14 years. There, she developed recipes for Oscar Mayer deli meats, bacon and Kraft cheese products. It was a job she absolutely loved! She was doing what she loved and was working with great people. Lori is happy to have chosen following her passion in life. It has made her work life very enjoyable, and she does not regret her years of doing what she has always loved.
Love & Marriage
Erika Fehrenbach Prell is passionate about inspiring and educating, others on their path to complete wellness-mind,body, and soul. This desire led Erika to the helping profession of nursing, and she obtained her Master's Degree as a Nurse Practitioner in 2007. Erika specialized in cardiac surgery, largely influenced by her personal experience with heart disease. While she loved working with this population, her heart's desire has always been to impact lives on a larger scale and from a proactive, not reactive, place. The universe answered when her path crossed with Jackie and SoulShine was born. Erika finally feels she is walking in her purpose and is excited for this journey to unfold.