Rev. Dr. Sha’Leda Mirra, Ph.D., LCSW, CAP
Our habits reveal a lot about who we are. In fact, as the saying goes, we are what we repeatedly do. It takes intention and mindful focus to become aware of our actions and the impact of those actions on our lives. The behaviors we acquire are shaped by observation and imitation of what we experience within our environment. Exposure within our environment can predispose us and normalize certain behavioral norms. The process by which these behaviors become automatic is known as habit formation. Habit formation involves triggers, beliefs, actions, and consequences/rewards. The trigger is the activating event that initiates the action. The belief is the messaging formed from our worldviews and values, beliefs impact attitudes, perception and self-talk. Actions are the resulting behavior and choices made; and the consequence/reward is the benefit received from the habit. I have included a more detailed explanation in the chart below.
Habit Formation Process
This is the cue or prompt that initiates the habit. It could be an external trigger, such as a time of day, a location, or a social situation, or an internal trigger, such as a feeling or an emotion.
These are the underlying beliefs and attitudes that shape the habit. They could be conscious or unconscious and may involve attitudes about oneself, others, or the environment.
These are the physical behaviors that comprise the habit. They can be simple or complex, and may involve a range of cognitive, emotional, and motor skills.
These are the outcomes or results that follow the habit. They could be positive or negative, immediate or delayed, and may include physical, emotional, or social consequences. Rewards play a critical role in habit formation as they reinforce the habit and increase the likelihood of it being repeated in the future.
Understanding these four components of habit formation can be helpful in creating new habits or changing existing ones. By identifying triggers, beliefs, actions, and consequences/rewards, one can create a plan to modify or replace existing habits with new, healthier ones. Additionally, it can be helpful to track progress and adjust the plan as needed to ensure success in developing new habits.
The secret to building healthier habits is first identifying and defining our habits, and understanding the process of their formation. Because we spend most of our lives on “autopilot” or “in subconscious flow” we are often unaware of the habits that drive our existence and the impact they have on our overall health. In fact, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina note that habits account for 45% of our everyday behaviors. This means that a huge portion of our lives are made up of these ingrained and often unknown behaviors. Habits are automatic behaviors, repeatedly daily or multiple times daily within our lives. Contrary to popular belief, habits form gradually and then become a part of our normal daily response. Because habits become second nature, we perform them without really thinking and then the behavior becomes a permanent part of our character repertoire unless transformation is desired. Healthy habits are behaviors and thoughts that lead to an increase in positive production, effectiveness, and overall health. Unhealthy or negative habits do the opposite as they are detrimental to the quality of our lives. Below are just a few articles that I reviewed that provide insight on the importance of habit formation:
Gardner & Lally (2018) in their article Modelling habit formation and its determinants, reviews recent research on habit formation and highlights the importance of environmental cues and social support in building new habits. It also emphasizes the role of positive emotions in reinforcing habits. Galla & Duckworth (2015) found that building beneficial habits (such as exercising regularly or eating healthily) mediated the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes, such as better academic performance and higher levels of well-being. Rebar et. al (2016) conducted a systematic review finding that non-conscious regulatory processes, such as automaticity and habit formation, were important for promoting physical activity and other health behaviors. The authors suggest that interventions aimed at building new habits and routines may be particularly effective in promoting sustained behavior change. Overall, these studies suggest that building beneficial habits and routines is important for promoting positive life outcomes and well-being. They also highlight the role of social support, positive emotions, and environmental cues in habit formation and suggest that non-conscious regulatory processes may be particularly important for sustaining behavior change.
The goal is to build long-lasting and healthy habits so that we can reap the rewards be they emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental. No habit will merge with you and remain if there is no connection to it. In fact, in habit formation, the neurological pathways in the basal ganglia develop cravings for the rewards received or perceived benefits of the habit. On the contrary in order to change an unhealthy habit, we must change our hardwired habits by rewiring our neural pathways through the repetition of a healthier alternative. We must commit to ditching OLD unhealthy habits and rewiring our brains with NEW healthy habits.
Building new habits and routines can be challenging, but with the right approach, it can also be very rewarding. Here are some suggestions for building new habits and routines:
1. Start Small: Begin with small and achievable goals that you can accomplish without feeling overwhelmed. This could mean starting with a 5-minute meditation session or committing to taking a 10-minute walk each day. Gradually increase the difficulty or time as you get comfortable with the routine.
2. Make it a Priority: Make your habit or routine a priority by scheduling it into your calendar or setting reminders on your phone. Treat it like an important appointment that cannot be missed.
3. Be Consistent: Consistency is key when building a new habit. Try to perform the habit or routine at the same time each day, so it becomes a natural part of your daily routine.
4. Accountability: Hold yourself accountable by telling a friend or family member about your new habit or routine. Having someone to check in with can help you stay motivated and on track.
5. Celebrate Your Progress: Celebrate your progress by acknowledging your achievements. This could mean rewarding yourself after sticking to your new routine for a certain period of time or simply giving yourself a pat on the back.
6. Track Your Progress: Keep track of your progress by using a habit tracker or journal. Seeing how far you’ve come can be a great motivator to keep going.
7. Learn from Mistakes: Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or slip up. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and get back on track the next day.
8. Be Patient: Building a new habit takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself. It can take anywhere from 21 days to several months to form a new habit, so don’t give up too soon.
Here are some new habits to integrate into your day for improved health outcomes:
1. Begin the day with prayer and meditation: Before the worries of the day have a change to bombard your heart and mind, you have the opportunity to commit your day to God and water your soul and spirit with the affirming word of God. Daily we encounter lies and untruths that seek to trigger anxiety and frustration, shifting our paradigm and expectations from beauty to angst. When you begin your day with prayer and meditation you reinforce your heart, mind, and spirit with a truth that combats the lies that await.
2. The practice of mindfulness gives us the ability to pause and consciously recognize and reflect on habitual impulses, actions, and reactions. Through introspection and revelation, we become aware of how our involuntary habits have a powerful impact on our lives. Once we identify these habits, we can then assess the benefits or the risks and decide whether we want to keep them or not. It helps to keep a companion journal when practicing mindfulness so that we can journal habits, determine whether they are healthy or unhealthy, and then decide what changes need to be made. The goal is to identify unhealthy habits and replace them with healthier alternatives. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve psychological well-being, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve immune function. A meta-analysis of 29 randomized controlled trials found that mindfulness meditation interventions were effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression and improving quality of life (Khoury et al., 2013).
3. Go for a walk followed by a slow sprint: A brisk ten-minute walk can increase self esteem while reducing anxiety and stress according to the Mental Health Foundation. Exercise decreases stress hormones while increasing mood enhancing hormones. Research also postulates that adding 30 second sprints to your walk doubles the endorphins and improves your mood for an additional 90 minutes. Regular exercise has been linked to a wide range of physical and mental health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of chronic diseases, and enhanced mood and cognitive function. A meta-analysis of 305 randomized controlled trials found that exercise interventions were effective in improving a range of health outcomes, including cardiovascular health, body composition, and mental health (Rhodes et al., 2017).
4. Light a candle or use a diffuser with essential oils: Studies have revealed that certain fragrances, such as vanilla for example, elevates feelings of joy and relaxation. By intentionally selecting fragrances, you can elevate or calm your feelings and mood.
5. Eating a Balanced Diet: Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources is important for maintaining optimal health. A systematic review of 67 randomized controlled trials found that dietary interventions were effective in improving a range of health outcomes, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance (Schwingshackl et al., 2018).
6. Adequate Sleep: Getting adequate sleep is important for maintaining optimal physical and mental health. A meta-analysis of 43 randomized controlled trials found that sleep interventions were effective in improving sleep quality and duration and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Gordon et al., 2019).
7. Hydrating Properly: Proper hydration is essential for optimal health, including maintaining healthy skin, regulating body temperature, and supporting the cardiovascular system. A review of 17 randomized controlled trials found that interventions aimed at increasing water intake were effective in reducing body weight and improving hydration status (Dennis et al., 2019).
Overall, these studies suggest that regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and hydrating properly are important habits for improving health outcomes. They also highlight the importance of evidence-based interventions and support for building and sustaining these habits. Remember, building new habits and routines takes time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. Keep at it and you'll soon see the positive changes in your life. Today, choose to begin your journey of healthier habits. Your future self will be glad that you did.
Dennis, E. A., Dengo, A. L., Comber, D. L., Flack, K. D., Savla, J., Davy, K. P., & Davy, B. M. (2010). Water consumption increases weight loss during a hypocaloric diet intervention in middle-aged and older adults. Obesity, 18(2), 300-307.
Galla, B.M., & Duckworth, A.L. (2015). More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 508-525.
Gardner, B., & Lally, P. (2018). Modelling habit formation and its determinants. In The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Gordon, B. R., McDowell, C. P., Lyons, M., & Herring, M. P. (2019). The effects of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1445(1), 5-16.
Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78(6), 519-528.
Rebar, A.L., Dimmock, J.A., Jackson, B., Rhodes, R.E., Kates, A., & Starling, J. (2016). A systematic review of the effects of non-conscious regulatory processes in physical activity. Health Psychology Review, 10(4), 395-407.
Rhodes, R. E., Jiao, X., & Pelletier, L. G. (2017). Understanding action control: Predicting physical activity intention-behavior profiles across 1 year. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 39(3), 210-221.
Schwingshackl, L., Missbach, B., König, J., Hoffmann, G. (2018). Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and risk of diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Health Nutrition, 21(7), 1297-1306.