May 26, 2021

By Dr. Carla Denham, MD.

‘We are what we repeatedly do, so excellence is not an act but a habit’ - Aristotle

Aristotle was right of course, but there’s more- if excellence is a habit, then so is mediocrity! The outcome depends on the quality of your habits. Today, we tend to use the word ‘habit’ to refer to something negative (bad habit, drug habit, annoying habit); and the word ‘routine’ to refer to something positive (exercise routine, morning routine, etc.) Actually, the dictionary definitions of the two words are not wildly different, and neither is the way they are processed in the brain. When we feel immediately rewarded for doing something, our brains are soothed and we are likely to keep repeating the behavior in the future. If we do this over and over, habitually or routinely, we create a cycle that strengthens the behavior more each time. This can either be terrific or terrible for our well being in the long run, depending on the behavior, but either way ‘feel good’ chemicals are released by our brains that urge, ‘Yeah, do that again!’ 

Importantly, this cycle is perpetuated by our primitive or ‘animal’ brains, those systems we share with even reptiles and birds, and certainly with mammals. These systems have one main function- to keep us alive. Habits help with this because they are efficient (don’t have to think it through each time), tested (worked OK last time), comforting (this feels familiar), and rewarding (tastes/feels good.) Allowing our animal brains to formulate habits or routines is smart- allowing them to choosewhichhabits to form is not- that’s like allowing a two year old to decide how much candy to eat on a daily basis. This is where our more developed human brain needs to weigh in, while remembering the needs of the primitive brain. Forgetting this key fact is the reason why many well-intentioned efforts to change habits fail- you can’t outsmart or outmaneuver that animal brain. If you try, it will throw a tantrum to get its way, just like the two year old would if told he could never eat candy again, ever. The trick is to determine what need the old, unwanted habit is serving, and find something healthier that also satisfies the same need. Just choosing a new behavior because it’s what you ‘should’ do won’t work for long if that need goes unsatisfied.


Habits Take Time

Mark Twain said,  ‘A habit cannot be thrown out the window, it must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.’ We can all relate to that, but the good news is, he’s just not referring to bad habits! Good ones are just as difficult to break, once they are well and truly established. About that- recent pop psychology tells us that a habit takes three weeks to establish...but real data shows this to be untrue. More recent research shows that real, lasting behavioral change varies widely depending on the behavior and the person, and almost always takes between two and nine months. This is not intended to be discouraging, but realistic. Real mental change is just like physical change- it takes long term, sustained effort. Accepting this means you will be better able to be satisfied with small changes that build on one another, rather than becoming frustrated a month in and throwing in the towel.

So, start with one bad habit you’d like to replace with a healthier one, and ask some questions (and PS, don’t just answer these in your head. Write down your thoughts, you’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll gain from this exercise if you do.)

  • What need does this satisfy for me?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • What do I value more?
  • Do I have any better habits that fill a similar need?
  • Could I substitute one (or some) of those?
  • Is the new behavior really consistent with what I value, rather than just being something that’s supposedly good for me?
  • How can I make a plan to incorporate the new behavior into my day?



If the habit is too much ‘screen time’ during the week:

  • This makes me feel relaxed and comforted while I’m doing it; the internet or my phone doesn’t ask anything of me.
  • I waste hours and end up not feeling relaxed afterward anyway.
  • Being productive, finding meaning in what I do.
  • Listening to music or podcasts can help me relax too.
  • I love music, but I don’t listen to it nearly as much as when I was younger, and I often learn new things from podcasts.
  • I could have songs or podcasts already queued up and put listening into my schedule.


Plan Ahead

The last point is a very important one- planning ahead is crucial. This is where your human brain comes in! Using the example above, if you’re tired or stressed you’re not going to search for something to listen to, you’ll take the path of least resistance. But, if it’s already right’s not unlike putting away the candy bowl and replacing it with some string cheese so that’s what the hungry two year old will grab! 

Another stumbling block when attempting to change habits is, well, boredom. While our animal brains are hardwired for routine, our human brains are just as primed for adventure, creativity, and challenge. This is why travel is so stimulating when it’s intermittent- we love the routines of home most of the time, spiced up with occasional new experiences. It is important to recognize when routine becomes rut! If we try to change too many habits at once, or worse try to hyper-manage every behavior, ultimately our minds will stagnate and revolt. If you find yourself just letting go of healthy routines after they were established and can’t really pinpoint the reason, take a look at the challenges in your life and the opportunities for creativity. Have they dwindled? If so, delving back in can often recharge your energy and help you restore a balance between routine and adventure!




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