How to Build Better Habits and Be Your Best Self

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Service member prioritizes physical fitness.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Porfirio Alequine, the enlisted personnel branch chief for Joint Force Headquarters, approaches physical fitness with the following philosophy: ‘Make it a priority, do it every day, do it early in the day and have fun with it.’ (Spc. Allen Griffith/29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

We are creatures of habit and are hardwired to build habits. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s easier to build bad habits than good ones. However, there is a way to use the brain’s reward system to help reduce bad habits and replace them with good ones.

Build a Habit: Cue, Routine, Reward

Using the Cue, Routine, Reward model is a way to train your mind and body to both be engaged with habit creation. The cue comes with an activity that you normally do anyway, but add a subtle change to it.

For example, if you are trying to start exercising in the morning, place your workout clothes and shoes in the bathroom when you go to bed. Now, when you wake and go to the bathroom in the morning and brush your teeth, you now have the fitness cue right there to remind you.

Do not underestimate the importance of the cue. Preparing the night before with a gentle nudge is very powerful. Just as the alarm is a powerful reminder to wake you out of a deep sleep, the cue can get you moving in the right direction or steer you back in the right direction.

The routine begins immediately. Put on your workout clothes and shoes, prepare for exercise with a light snack or drink and then begin. What is the routine you are starting?  Starting to run again? Start easily, even if only for 10-15 minutes.

The goal of building the habit requires you to do the routine at a certain time of the day regularly -- daily if possible.  Even if your days in between contain no running, go through the process of waking, putting on the clothes, getting yourself ready to train and doing something for 10 minutes (walk or stretch).

After the routine, you can reward yourself. This may be an actual physical reward, like a higher-calorie breakfast, lunch or dinner later in the day or something less tangible. The feeling of being more awake, alert and more productive to start your day is a great reward that often comes with an early wakeup and training session.

Replace bad habits with something else. For instance, replace eating a sugary dessert after lunch or as a midday snack with another type of food or drink. See whether you are just thirsty and drink water instead. See whether you just needed food and replace the sugar habit with a fruit habit (apple, banana, orange, grapes). 

Bad Habits or Addictions

Changing habits is not an easy process and requires work, but it is easier to change than an addiction. Habits can turn into addictions, which are much more difficult to break as they require significant withdrawal reactions and emotional changes. A good way to describe the difference between a habit and an addition is that bad habits (not in moderation) usually are broken with the above methods explained.

Often, addiction -- whether it is substance, food or other activities -- can be life-threatening and requires delicate methods and training from professionals to assist with successful addiction transition.

If you think you might be addicted to something or some activity, please consider talking to a professional. Some references to read:

Drug Abuse

Center on Addiction

SAMSA Hotline

Related articles and references:

Habit Formation and Change

Power of Habit

Differences of Habits and Addictions

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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