It’s 3 p.m. and, like clockwork, you head to the break room for an afternoon infusion of sugar and caffeine. While commiserating with coworkers, you look down to discover that every cookie has mysteriously disappeared. Crumbs form an evidence trail leading directly to your mouth, but you have no memory of eating.
How many times have you found yourself in a situation like this, mindlessly eating at the same time every day, out of habit? Habits are repeated behaviors that create automatic routines which help the brain avoid overstimulation. About 40 percent of daily activities are habitual. But, habits are the antithesis of mindfulness, or being “in the moment.”
Habit loops consist of cues, routines, and rewards. The cue triggers the brain to go on autopilot. Routines are behaviors that occur in response to cues. Rewards are the prize for completing the loop, providing a sense of accomplishment, happiness, or relief. Cravings fuel habit loops and develop when the brain anticipates the reward before it’s delivered.
Willpower, the cornerstone of habit change, is a learnable skill, but it requires energy to be sustained. Crash diets and drastic changes crush willpower.
Since habits are etched into the brain’s neural pathways, they never really go away, but they can be reshaped through mindfulness. To change a habit, the old cue and reward are retained but must be countered with a new routine that produces the same reward.
Tips for Mindful Habit Change
- Make small changes.
- Write it down: Journaling strengthens willpower.
- Give it time: It takes three weeks to change a habit loop.
- Create positive rewards: Encourage mindfulness by visualizing new rewards.
- Lapses happen: Have a plan to deal with stress.
- Get it outta sight: See-through candy jars on the desk encourage mindless eating. Hide the jar.
- Tame the office feeder: Encourage the sweet-treat provider to bring in alternatives to the usual calorie bombs.
- Buddy up: Taking walks, exercising, or practicing other new habits with a friend fosters successful change.