The science behind habits

New Year resolutions are often based on changing our habits, but it’s important to first learn what habits really are and how you can apply them to better yourself. (Courtesy of Unsplash)

With the new year in effect, resolutions and new goals are popping up for people everywhere. Regardless of what your goal is for the year, in order to truly implement it into your life, it has to become a habit. 

A habit is defined as “a settled or regular tendency or practice” and we can see them everywhere in our lives. Brushing our teeth, working out, biting our nails, and even smoking are all examples of habits — whether good or bad. 

“I really want to try and eat fast food only once a month this year — that’s my goal for 2021,” says second-year accounting student Shalini Patel. 

“I don’t think it will be too difficult since I know how to cook and I mostly only get fast food out of laziness, but who knows what will happen when those cravings hit.”

The importance of habits in our lives cannot be overstated. They can quite literally make or break you; habits can propel you towards your goals and ambitions or ensure they remain fleeting from you. Our brains are wired to take the easy route, which is why bad habits seem to form so quickly. When we set the proper systems in place to keep us on the path we know we should be on, reaching our goals and having a fulfilling life becomes that much easier. 

Our brains love automating steps to create routine ― it allows for brain power to be used on more important mental processes. Dr. Ian Newby-Clark explains that our minds do not function the same way when we are doing something habitual versus something that isn’t. 

“As an example, consider making breakfast in your own kitchen on any given weekday. Next time you do it, watch how effortlessly it happens. Your movements through the kitchen are stereotyped. If something is on your mind, you might not notice that you’re sitting at the table and munching on your second piece of toast until you’re halfway through it.”

Based on Newby-Clark’s description, it almost seems like our minds are on auto-pilot when completing a habitual action. The reason for this is that habits have their basis in reinforcement and repetition. Reinforcement encourages the repetition of a behaviour every time the stimulus that triggered the behaviour occurs. The behaviour then becomes more automatic with each repetition. 

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, states that every habit has three components: a cue, triggering the behaviour to start (like your hunger); a routine, which is the behaviour itself (like making your breakfast); and the reward, which is the benefit of taking said course of action (like the delicious meal you get to enjoy once you’re all done). The reward is what makes your brain want to continue the behaviour in the future. 

Adam Green, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, has some experience with this habit cycle, as he unknowingly implemented it to achieve his goal last year of hitting the gym three days a week. 

“It was difficult at the start because I’m a very laid-back person, and getting up early to hit the gym every morning was a far cry from what I’m used to doing. But, I motivated myself by buying one of my favourite protein shakes at the end of each workout. After about a month, I began realizing that I was actually beginning to enjoy going to the gym,” says Green. 

This formula behind habits can be applied to anything new that you plan on implementing into your life. Just be sure to have an effective cue, and most importantly a great reward for yourself, and the routine will form by default. 

So, whether you’re looking to finally get in shape this year or learn that skill you’ve been putting off forever, just remember: habits are your best friends in getting there.

About the Author

Shivam Sachdeva

By Shivam Sachdeva

Health Editor

health@excal.on.ca

Shivam is a driven undergraduate Political Science student with a penchant for health, wellness, and communicating it to people. He believes living a healthy life equates to a happy life, and rejoices in learning all kinds of new health facts that can practically improve people's wellbeing. As his experience with professional writing continues to grow, he hopes to pursue a career in either journalism or law. When Shivam is not writing, you can likely find him working out, playing tennis, hanging out with friends or wasting endless hours going down YouTube rabbit holes.

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