Lifestyle plays a major role in increasing your life and healthspan. As a group we believe that good information when put into practice can help you achieve your health goals. That’s why we like to periodically dive into health behavior science to review the building blocks for establishing good habits.
Our brains are hard-wired for habits and because of this, behavior change is a difficult task. In fact, in order to change our habits, we literally have to retrain our brains.
In behavioral science, habits are described in terms of their component parts—the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, or the “ABCs”, defined below:
- Antecedent: Precedes the habit and consists of environmental cues and events that signal initiation of the behavior.
- Behavior: The habit itself; it is what wedo, think, or feel in response to theantecedent.
- Consequences: The end result of the habit that serves to reinforce it or extinguish it.
Every habit that has ever formed in your life follows this three-step pattern, for good or for bad. Take brushing your teeth for example. Using the ABC’s, the antecedent is readying your toothbrush, the behavior is the act of brushing your teeth, and the consequence is having fresh breath to start your day. Habits are formed in repeated patterns of antecedents, behaviors, and consequences until they become automated. Behavioral experts estimate that a habit takes an average of 66 days to form, but knowing that habits form from patterns is not nearly enough to make a lasting change. If you really want to extinguish an old habit and replace it with a better one, you have to become intentional about monitoring what you do.
Before you tuck into a new habit, take some time to come up with a strategy using the following tips:
- Set a goal. Decide on a behavior you want to replace with something better. Write it down so you can see it.
- Observe your old habit for 1-2 weeks, keeping track of the antecedents, behavior, and consequences.
- Pick your behavior change strategies. Remember the best plans, use multiple strategies!
- To change antecedents, build in pauses—Building in pauses is a way to take a break between the antecedent and the behavior. Before you do something, take a couple of minutes to ask yourself if it is really something you want to do. Is this going to help or harm your attempt to change?
- To change behaviors, use shaping—Shaping schedules use successive approximation to ease your way into a new behavior. To create a shaping schedule pick a time interval and subdivide it into pieces, so that you start small and end at your goal. For example, if you want to exercise 60 minutes per day, increase your daily exercise by 5 minute increments until you reach 60 minutes.
- To change consequences, use tokens—A token economy is a tool every elementary school child is familiar with, but it works in adults as well. To use a token system, reward yourself with a check mark or gold star every time you successfully complete your new behavior. When you have acquired enough tokens (e.g., a month of stars), give yourself a tangible reward (e.g., movie tickets, new tools, a spa day, etc). Remember, if your new behavior is fitness, weight loss, or eating-focused, do not reward yourself with food.
- Create a relapse plan in case you make a mistake. Breaking a well-ingrained habit is hard work and mistakes will happen. Plan for them ahead of time so that you do not become discouraged and undo all your progress. Reviewing your behavior change plan, positive affirmations about your ability to change, and asking for help from friends and family can help you stay the course.
Adapted From Denver Urban Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2020 by Dr. Erynn M. Burks