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How to Rewire Your Brain to Love Healthy Habits

There are three parts to every habit—and these simple steps can get your brain on board to create new, healthier ones.

It’s like clockwork: Every day you eat a cookie at the same time. Or you park yourself on the couch and turn on the TV after dinner. You don’t even think about it anymore. It’s become a habit.

But what if you could rewire your brain for healthy habits? Imagine getting up and going to the gym every morning without thinking about it, standing up and moving around every hour or planning healthy meals each week. Actually, you can do it. You just have to train your brain.

We asked psychiatrist Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD, of Medical City Green Oaks Hospital in Dallas, Texas, about what a habit is, how it takes decision-making out of the equation, where people go wrong in breaking bad habits and trying to create new ones.

What is a habit?
A habit is an action you do automatically. Why is it automatic? Because it’s based on a cue you’ve established. For example, you wake up in the morning—that’s your cue— and your habitual action is to brush your teeth. Or you get into your car—another cue—and your habitual action is to buckle up your seat belt.

According to Dr. Ucheoma-Cofield, the habits we’ve established by repeating them over and over again actually become wired into our brain circuitry. “The brain develops connections within itself to go on autopilot to perform basic functions, based on cues,” she says.

Most of your thinking occurs on the surface of the brain—the cortex—but habits are formed in a deeper level of the brain, called the basal ganglia, says Ucheoma-Cofield. When you build habits, the thinking part of the brain can step away, so to speak, and let the basal ganglia take over, so you do habitual actions almost unconsciously.

“The brain likes to reserve energy for higher-order thinking,” says Ucheoma-Cofield. Any time the brain doesn’t have to think—as in a habit—it saves energy. “We then have the brain power to devote to more complicated tasks,” Ucheoma-Cofield.

Three elements of a habit
Ucheoma-Cofield says habits have three parts, called the three R’s: reminder, routine and reward. The reminder is the cue, or a signal, to start doing something, says Ucheoma-Cofield. “That reminder kicks in the automaticity part of a habit.”

A cue could be a certain time of day, or a location. “The reminders you choose should be things you’re already doing,” says Ucheoma-Cofield. “Associate every new behavior with a previous behavior.”

 The idea is to use that cue to create a new, healthier habit. For instance, you might want to take a few moments to breathe deeply every time you crave a cigarette, or drink water instead of a soda whenever you’re out to lunch.

The final part—the reward—is key in developing or maintaining a new habit, since it gives you the motivation needed to make that change. “The reward is important because we are constantly looking for meaning to our behavior,” Ucheoma-Cofield says. “What makes us do something is a consequence or reward.”

Think about how good you’ll look after hitting the gym for a few months, or how much healthier you’ll feel once you quit smoking. Find something to keep you going until you’ve formed a healthy habit, and let your basal ganglia take it from there.   

How long it takes to build habits
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but that’s a myth. A 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology had almost 100 volunteers work on building habits for 12 weeks.

It found the habit became more or less automatic at an average of 66 days, but it varied considerably—it took 18 days for some and up to eight months for others. Slipping up once didn’t make a difference, but the researchers wrote that consistency and repetition were instrumental to building the habits.

A weakness of this study is that researchers were relying on the volunteers’ self-reported data, which isn’t always accurate.

Break down your goals
Many people get tripped up in creating habits because their goals are too big, Ucheoma-Cofield says. “The way to bring your habit creation down to a fundamentally approachable and sustainable level is by breaking down your ultimate goal into pieces,” she says. “Write down the steps of what it takes to get there.”

Say that your goal is to drop 10 pounds. How are you going to do that? Breaking it down step-by-step, Ucheoma-Cofield says, you could start by taking a walk around the block on a set day after dinner. Put your fork down, put on your shoes and start walking every Tuesday.

“Then you go from there,” says Ucheoma-Cofield.  You could start walking twice a week, and then walk longer. Bump it up to three times a week. Do a power walk to boost calorie burn.

You’ll likely need to make some changes in your diet as well. One step could be to make the decision to eat more produce. You’ll want to associate grocery shopping with buying greens. So the cue, or reminder, is going to the supermarket. (Adding produce to your shopping list can help get you started.)

The routine is passing through the produce section and adding fruits and veggies to your cart. (You may want to look up some recipes that sneak in more veggies, too.) If you keep up your new routine, buying vegetables at the supermarket will become automatic.

Finally, remember your reward, or motivation. When you don’t feel like eating a salad or taking that walk, remind yourself of how great you’ll look in shorts and a tank top in a few months. Or maybe your motivation comes from watching the numbers on the scale drop, or seeing your abs revealed.

“If you start with a huge end goal without breaking it down, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” says Ucheoma-Cofield.  

Replace bad habits with good
Another habit mistake? Trying to break a bad habit without replacing it with a good one. “Habits, once formed, are always there,” says Ucheoma-Cofield. “There’s no such thing as just stopping bad behavior.”

If you’re trying to break a bad habit, “you have to override it with a new one,” explains Ucheoma-Cofield. That’s why so many former cigarette smokers turn to gum or food after they quit—they’re replacing one habit with another.

“The old one will still be there, but a new habit can come in and take precedence over it,” she says. “It’s like exercising a muscle—whatever habit you exercise most gets the strongest.”