Creating new habits

Our habits are deeply rooted within us and they are difficult to break, but there are ways to acquire new and better habits.

bike race

Everyone who has ever had a goal (e.g. completing an amateur bike race) quickly realises that only a general desire to accomplish something is not enough. Carrying out such a project, not least if you start as an untrained couch potato, requires willpower, stamina to overcome adversity and perseverance to continue exercising despite aching muscles and an enticing TV sofa.

There are three key components in the motivation; activation, endurance and intensity.

The activation means to make the decision to implement something – to complete the bike race.

The endurance is the pursuit of the goal, even when obstacles are in the way – to exercise on the bike four times a week regardless of mood and weather.

The intensity is the commitment, the concentration and the power to accomplish the task – when cycling becomes an interest and a lifestyle.

For a new activity to become a habit, it requires initially a very great willpower to have it incorporated into our daily routines so often that the neural networks that are responsible for the activity become enough rich and plenty-fold that the activity begins to come naturally without thinking about it. This requires repeating the activity at least 20 days in close succession.

To do the outdoor bike exercise every afternoon after work (regardless of the weather) is initially tough, but eventually the daily training round becomes so integrated in our life that it feels like something is missing when we miss out on it.

But this is only one side of the coin. To achieve this regularity, something more is required. Because before it becomes an established habit, it must compete with all other habits that are already deeply  embedded in our brains and this is a struggle in stiff uphill.

In his book The power of habit: Why we do what we do and how to change, Charles Duhigg has described how we can both understand and facilitate this process for ourselves. Duhigg writes that the will or intention is necessary for change, but is usually not sufficient.

To transform the intention into a habit is facilitated by identifying a trigger point – a place or event that makes us associate it with the activity.

The trigger point may be to open the door after coming home from work. If the bike workout every day takes place immediately after returning home, then the act of opening the door and putting away the briefcase becomes so strongly associated with the bike exercise that we almost automatically begin to take out the training clothes. If we instead go through the mail or turn on the TV, then the moment is lost and it will be much harder to raise the energy and desire for the bike ride, or it is simply forgotten.

But even this is not enough to establish the habit. Getting back exhausted and with aching muscles could be a deterrent. And even when the activity does not cause any discomfort, it competes with several other activities that may seem more attractive. We therefore also need some form of reward.

This reward is individual. For some, it may be that with a good conscience treat yourself to that enticing but calorie-rich chocolate cupcake. For others, it can be to be able to follow the pulse clock and exercise program in concrete terms to see how the stamina and results are constantly improving.

Eventually, the training also activates our own inner reward systems. The excretion of dopamine and the flow of endorphins (the body’s own morphine) during exercise becomes a kick that can be as addictive as from the artificial variants of these drugs.

Illustration: – wiggijo

svensk_flagga   Detta blogginlägg på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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