Habit Change Part 2: It’s Automatic

Note: This post is the second in a three-part series on habit change

Do you ever look at pictures of celebrities — the ones who have perfectly toned arms, flat abs, and zero cellulite — and Google them to find out exactly what they eat, so you can do the same thing?

I used to do that all the time. I thought if I could just get the blueprint of what one of these women did every day, I could replicate it and get the same body. I was especially fascinated with actresses who had gained a lot of weight for a part and then lost it all really fast after the movie wrapped.

I would stick to the plan for a few days, but then I would fall off the wagon and go right back to what I usually did. It was completely demoralizing to feel like I didn’t have enough willpower to follow through.

But trying to do this was never going to work, and it wasn’t because I didn’t have enough willpower. I was essentially trying to change all my habits overnight, and that is impossible to do for a very good reason. Actually, a very good scientific reason.

First, what is a “habit”? Webster’s dictionary says that a habit is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” If a habit is involuntary, that means it’s not you at work — it’s your brain. So if you’re not able to just wake up and change all your habits, you shouldn’t feel like a failure — your brain has put you on autopilot. You’ve trained it to make you engage automatically in certain behaviors. That’s how they became habits.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explores how the brain forms habits. Based on what he learned through his interviews with scientists who research this complex process, he explains that the brain constantly processes information it receives in an effort to become more efficient. It attempts to recognize patterns so that it can save its energy to do more important things, like solve problems.

A habit starts to form because of a trigger/reward process. You have a certain trigger, which leads you to take a specific action, so you can get a reward. The action you take to get the reward is the key to everything, because that action becomes the habit.

For example, if you have a habit of eating when you’re stressed out, then stress is your trigger and your reward is feeling calm. When you started eating in response to stress in order to feel better, your brain began to recognize this as a pattern. Once your brain senses a pattern, it rewires itself to take that same action automatically so it doesn’t have to keep remembering to do it. This is how a habit is formed.

This is a really important point to understand if you want to make progress in losing weight and being healthy. Too often, we make judgments about who we are when we’re unable to make overnight changes. But it’s not about who you are — it’s about how you’re wired. Habit formation starts in the brain. You don’t overeat because you’re a loser and can’t control yourself. Your brain simply recognized what you do as a pattern so it didn’t have to “think” about it anymore.

The key to changing your habits lies in modifying what happens in the middle — what you do in response to the trigger to get the reward. We’ll get to that next week. But for now, just understand that you have habits for a scientific reason, not a moral one.

Plus, habits aren’t “good” or “bad” — they just lead to certain outcomes. If you have a habit of eating really fast, the outcome is excess weight. It’s not “bad,” it just is. If you have a habit of drinking coffee when you wake up, it’s because your brain has been rewired to condition you to drink it to feel more alert in response to feeling sluggish and tired. You don’t judge yourself for drinking coffee in the morning, do you?

I always felt like a failure that I didn’t have enough willpower to change my habits. But that’s because I didn’t understand how they were formed. Understanding why you have the habits you do lifts the judgment and shame from the scenario. You have to stop judging yourself — otherwise you will stay stuck in a never-ending failure/shame loop (which dieting reinforces).

You are not a bad person. You are just a person who has certain habits — habits that can easily be changed.

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