February 4, 2023

Lifestyle Rx: Creating healthy habits | Sarasota

Here we go: rolling into the holiday season with its exacerbation of merriment accompanied by perhaps less than positive habits. We could make a list, though it’s safe to say that you might well be ticking off those habits in your mind right now. Before you get bummed out, let’s take a look at how can we mitigate unhealthy habits and replace them with habits better suited to a feel better mindset. Call it a jump start on Jan. 1.

This is certainly not an original idea. The past few years have seen a plethora of books and articles focusing on the topic of habits. In fact, one such book, James Clear’s “Atomic Habits,” is squarely in the upper echelon of bestsellers right now. That follows in the tracks of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes the Change Everything, Make Your Bed and the Power of Habit.”

All of these tomes indicate that habits — how we create them, possibly break them and hopefully replace them — are a major field of study. The science of habit formation is big stuff I discovered while attempting to synthesize all of the latest and greatest into a simple guide for the rest of us. 

As I’ve learned, rodents have been involved. It seems that those little guys have shown us time and again that there is a three-step process in forming a habit. Our brains receive a cue that reminds us of a routine that produces a reward. It’s a simple loop — cue, routine, reward.

Now, although all of the aforementioned scientists have a different way of describing this process, it’s basically this. Think, for instance, of driving down any street in practically any town, anywhere, and we see the golden arches. Immediately, that visual cue says “french fries.” The routine of pulling into the drive-thru will produce a particularly toothsome reward. It really doesn’t matter if we’re hungry. We know that those salty, fatty fries will bring a pleasurable reward.

This is a simple example. It could be something much more or less complicated. 


Let’s Start With the Less

Former Navy Seal Admiral William McRaven’s bestseller “Make Your Bed” adds the element of willpower into the equation. It’s no surprise, considering the title, that he posits that starting the day with a simple action — making your bed — becomes the keystone habit creating a domino effect for the rest of the day. The visual and kinetic cue of making the bed kicks off many tasks that become routines, which brings about a productive and positive day — the reward. 

“Habits are as much a curse as a benefit.” — Charles Duhig

The term “keystone” is used frequently in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit.” Broadly defined, a keystone habit is a base habit from which other habits flow — positive or negative. The example of making your bed is a keystone habit that, as described by McRaven, will be extremely positive. If, on the other hand, you wake up late every morning, rushing through the morning must-do’s building stress, that’s a series of keystone habits that more than not will set up a day of stress and inefficiency. 


Breaking Bad 

Eliminating those habits you define as “bad” takes some thought and determination, sometimes known as willpower but better thought of as powerful motivation.

As with many things, the brain is driving the train here. We have a little part of our brain called the habenula. It does several things, but for our purposes, it’s the little voice that says, “You tried that once, and you failed.” In other words, its shapes behavior based on past failures and disappointments.

How do we counteract this? In a report issued by the Mayo Clinic, authored by Dr. Steve Kopecky, he suggests this: “It’s much better to register tiny successes than big failures in our path toward change.” Kopecky goes on to suggest, as does James Clear in his book, that successful change begins with understanding the “whys”: Why do we want to lose weight or stop smoking or yelling at our kids? 

You need to be really clear about how that aligns with your value system. Getting clear about your motivation is the agreed-upon most important factor in changing habits. Your motivation will drive all of the small but significant changes that become habits over time. And our brains like small. They like things that become routine of habits because it conserves energy for the bigger things we must figure out every day. 

“Changing a habit is the best way to change your lifestyle.” — Dr. Steve Kopecky

Here are a couple suggestions for consideration. Remember: Getting square with our values is what creates motivation. 

Stick to a routine. Consistency creates a huge amount of positive effects. It makes our habenula happy.

Practice gratitude. You might be thinking, what does that have to do with habits? Well, it might be the most important habit of all. Practicing gratitude helps us to love our own life and not long for others things. Practicing gratitude is a big habit that leads to a peaceful mind.


Kristine Nickel is a marketing communications consultant and former marketing and public relations executive. For more than 30 years, she has relieved her stress by writing features for publications across the country.

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