You’ve probably heard the saying “you are your habits.” Turns out it’s true. In one study, researchers at Duke University found that a full 40% of what we do and think every day is habit. That’s a powerful fact to know. Essentially it means that our habits can help us create a life that works and flows--or they can make our days hard and frantic.
For example, at the beginning of my separation from my first husband, I spent a lot of time alone, single-parenting my toddler son, worrying, and mourning. Enforcing this were certain habits that were keeping me stuck, tired, and feeling incapable of the challenges ahead. This is what a typical evening looked like:
8:00 PM: Finally shut my (hopefully, now-sleeping) son’s bedroom door.
8:02 PM: Retrieve chocolates from cabinet.
8:04 PM: Plant self on couch, watch Gilmore Girls, consume chocolate.
8:30 PM: Hit sugar high, stay up three extra hours, wake up drained and tired.
I knew that to change how I woke up, I needed to change how I went to bed. That was obvious. But the things I was doing were actually helping me through a tough time. Letting go of all of them at once without having a clear replacement was a lot to take on.
If you’ve ever tried to change a habit, you can probably relate to the above. Here’s why: Think of your brain like a grassy field. When you push your wheelbarrow down a specific direction, a smooth, worn path is created. Every time you walk that path, you strengthen it more, creating a groove in the soil. Soon, the wheelbarrow seems to lead itself. A rut’s been created that’s so deep you no longer need to steer the wheelbarrow; the motion has become automatic. At this point, if you were to try walking down that path and switching direction, you’d have to actively force the wheelbarrow out of the groove--and that’s not easy. Your brain doesn’t like to take new paths. It wants the old, easy path.
Toward the end of my divorce, I learned something very important. We often think of habits and behaviors that we need to break or change. Yet there’s a third option: We can build new ones. Heart habits, also known as keystone habits, are habits that have a positive ripple effect across everything you do. They’re new behaviors that, by virtue of their very existence, help you effortlessly dislodge and displace the old ones you’re trying to shake. Commit to one heart habit, consistently, and the positivity moves like shock waves through your life.
Instead of trying to change any (or all) of my nighttime habits--my emotional security blankets--I flipped the script and added a single, powerful new activity to my morning: I signed up for yoga classes at the YMCA. Quickly, I started to see that positive ripple effect because yoga connected me to a supportive community, and it strengthened and recalibrated my body in ways that made me feel better, less wired, and more ready to go to sleep at night. Soon, my days started to look like this:
9:00 PM: Get to bed feeling relaxed and calm.
5:30 AM: Wake up, rested from a full 8 hours of sleep.
7:45 AM: Drop off son at daycare.
8:00 AM: Yoga class at the YMCA.
9:10 AM: Chat with other women from class.
9:30 AM: Walk home to start work.
It sounds extreme, but creating that one heart habit formed the core of huge healing shift in my life. And since then, I’ve seen the same kind of transformation happen to friends and clients.
Why does this happen? It turns out that the brain likes habitual actions. It creates physical pathways for them, and even rewards you with pleasure chemicals like dopamine when you follow them. The brain also likes fun activities. It lights up with even more feel-good chemicals when your habitual actions are pleasurable. In other words, when you choose to form a new habit that also makes you happy, as yoga did for me, it’s like you’re ditching that wheelbarrow and hopping on a speed train toward positive change.
Want to experiment with creating your own heart habit but don’t know where to start? A great way to start playing around with the concept--as well as a jump-start get the habit going--is to pick something you already do each day. I’d suggest making a list of ten. Then, choose one of those habits, and attach an easy, healthy habit to it. For instance, you might attach a gratitude practice to brushing your teeth when you get up, or some neck stretches to the time you spend waiting for your coffee order.
As you become more used to the practice, start thinking about the area of your life you’d most like to improve and come up with something that you think could counterbalance one or more of the negative habits attached to it. For example, what times do you tend to have the most sugar cravings? That’s where you could add a daily meditation. Do you stay out too late on weekends? Keep a favorite TV episode for Saturday night so you have an incentive to get home and skip that last drink.
Each time you add a heart habit, check in with yourself throughout the process with a non-judgmental attitude. Don’t beat yourself up for what you see about your behaviors. Each time, get curious and consistently ask yourself this helpful question: What would life be like if my habits set me up for wellness and joy?
Alexandra Jamieson CHHC, CAPP, is a best-selling author, functional nutrition and life coach, positive psychology practitioner, chef, podcast host, and “cravings whisperer.” Previously, Alex was the co-star and co-creator of the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me and the The Great American Detox Diet. She has been seen on Oprah, The Today Show, Dr. Oz, Martha Stewart Living, CNN, Fox News, USA Today and People. Alex’s Podcast, The Crave Cast, debuted at #1 on iTunes in Alternative Health and continues to draw listeners from around the world with new perspectives on health, cravings, and sexuality with top expert interviews. Her new book Women, Food & Desire hit #1 on Amazon on several lists including Popular Psychology – Sexuality, and was the #1 New Release in Spirituality + Self-Help on Amazon.