Friday, January 29, 2016

The Habit Cycle

Coincidentally, I was doing an online "healthy habits" thing my employer offers (with a modest cash incentive to complete) and I chose the one about Managing Stress. A lot of the little slideshows & articles associated with that were about mindfulness and habit change. And it was shockingly helpful! There was a lot about the "habit cycle" phenomenon, and how habits are comprised of the Cue-Response-Reward cycle.

The cue is the trigger that sets you off toward your bad habit---it can be: location, people, emotion, situation, time. And the response is, of course, the habit. The reward, also obvious, is how you feel after, the benefit you get. Like when you its 3 pm and you think "snack time" so you head to the vending machine for a candy bar and you get a nice break in your afternoon and some energy. Or you go to a restaurant with friends and always order fries and nachos and get social interaction.  Or when you are stressed out by your kids fighting bedtime and you eat a bowl of ice cream and feel comforted. So to break the habit cycle you have to find another way to respond to said cue, but it has to be something of similar benefit. You can't just IGNORE the 3pm internal alarm and power through. You need to create a new ritual that gives you the same feeling of energy & relaxation. You need another coping mechanism for your bickering kids and another way to socialize with your friends that isn't unhealthy food. You know, the usual. There is nothing new here.

But I think directly applying this thought process to my current habit-change challenge may prove useful.  What triggers me to jump onto facebook or blogs? And what benefit does it give me.

Triggers: boredom, wanting connection, feeling stressed/anxious/sad, brain needing break
Reward: feeling connected, entertainment, numbing/distracting from negative emotion, mental break

Lets explore these triggers a little. Boredom is self-explanatory on the surface but there is complexity in its depths. When did I become so uncomfortable with just my own thoughts? Why do I feel the drive to pick up my phone even while waiting 30 seconds for the light to change? Connection is something I seek a LOT at work and fairly often at home. I am in my office many days for 8-9 hours with no real connection to anyone. Sure I may have go to a lecture or attend a conference call and I call patients back most days but there is no actual social interaction with peers. Sometimes you just want to laugh, commiserate, tell someone about your day, ask someone about theirs, share a cup of coffee and get out of your own head. I have no one to do that with in my current situation, so I hop on the internet for that. And yes, my brain does need a break. I can't keep intensely focused on a task for hours at a time, its good to step away and refresh.

So how can I meet those needs in other ways? I haven't completely figured this out. Things I'm going to try: daydreaming, just BEING bored and letting my mind wander. Sending emails to friends and family during my breaks rather than just clicking through facebook or reading blogs, and at home, texting or calling  (nope not a phone caller anymore). Taking an actual break from the computer altogether. Going for a little stroll to run a work-errand (drop off forms, talk to someone in person instead of email), or just to clear my head. Doing 5 minute of meditation. Productive procrastination---clean my office, submit FSA reimbursements, figure out what's on those 10 flash drives I found in my bag. Go to the break room and make myself a cup of tea and drink it there, enjoying the view from the wall-length window rather than back in my office on the computer.

Another point the tutorial made was that it was fundamentally important to understand WHY you wanted to make a change in your habits, or you were unlikely to succeed. The answer to the question you will ask yourself a million times as you white-knuckle your way through the day without cigarettes, or junk food, or facebook: "Why the F am I doing this again?". "Because its good for me" isn't good enough.

The answer to this has changed for me, and become more honest and (hopefully) more motivating. Its not just that I'll be more productive and more present to my family. I'll also actually enjoy my work and home life more. I LOVE those times at work when I can be deeply focused, in the coveted "flow state", and same at home with a project or task. I am so happy when I can lose myself in play with my kids (or even better, just watching them play, and reveling in the cuteness!) or conversations with my husband. I also love blogging and reading blogs and keeping up with friends & family on FB; its a hobby that I'm not planning to quit anytime soon. But instead of keeping it confined into certain periods of my day like I do with my other hobbies, I'm letting this bleed over into all aspects of my life. Spending so much time checking on facebook posts, blog comments, and emails is preventing me from enjoying my life! 

 I'm gathering up strategies and debating how drastic I want to be with this challenge. I'll post my action plan on Monday!


  1. I run into the same problem with craving connections on days when I'm just in my office and not seeing patients. I've started doing two things that help: 1) taking a dedicated lunch break and reading in the very sunny atrium and 2) breaking my work down into 45-60 minute chunks separated by a walk or other mental break. It still doesn't involve as much human contact as I would like, but it does help to make a long day at the computer more manageable.

  2. I was feeling isolated at work also. I identified a few other people that I wanted to get to know better (newer faculty on the tenure track) and I sent them all an email asking to arrange a group lunch. I organized it and they came! It's been running for about 1 year and has made me feel much better! A small bit of effort to organize, but it's better totally worth it!

  3. I really loved learning about the habit cycle. It really helped me to identify what was happening when I was biting my nails (mostly in the car on the way home). Of course I haven't managed to stop biting my nails, but I do believe that if I really put some thought into it, I could. I definitely am WAY more cognizant of when it's happening and why, which is a step in the right direction.

    I've found it harder to figure out what triggers are at work when I want to buy something. Sometimes it's boredom, sometimes it's loneliness, sometimes I want to avoid thinking about another problem or feeling a negative emotion. It is really hard for me, in the moment to figure it out. I think I need to REALLY not buy anything for a LONG time to start getting a hold of my motivations for shopping. And I don't know how to mimic the good feeling I get from buying something new. Nothing else gives me that exact type of pleasure. ;)

    1. I agree, there isn't really anything that replicates the feeling. The only way I got out of it was with a long LONG shopping ban, so that when it wasn't even an option, the urge eventually stopped hitting me. There were SO MANY triggers I noticed: boredom, anxiety, sadness, wanting something to look forward to, feeling I "deserved it" because something didn't go my way, etc... I just needed to STOP for a while and I eventually found other ways to cope (not necessarily healthy, but...different... )