How To Form a New Habit
Most of us would say that we want a healthy, balanced lifestyle, but the discipline needed to form good habits can be daunting to say the least. I recently read an article in The NY Times that suggests a surprising approach to starting a new habit, like exercise for example ::
To teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy — like a small piece of chocolate — after your workout.
This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to lose weight. But the goal here is to train your brain to associate a certain cue (“It’s 5 o’clock”) with a routine (“Three miles down!”) and a reward (“Chocolate!”).
Eventually, your brain will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise (“It’s 5 o’clock. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!”), and you won’t need the chocolate anymore. In fact, you won’t even want it. But until your neurology learns to enjoy those endorphins and the other rewards inherent in exercise, you need to jump-start the process.
This idea reminded of when I had just had Valentine and was learning to breastfeed. I don’t know how familiar you are with breastfeeding, but for many women the first few weeks are both challenging and painful. My mom was with me at the time and she would do the most interesting thing—whenever I sat down to feed Valentine, Mom would slip me a piece of chocolate. She would smile and say that the endorphins from the chocolate would help me to relax and make the process both physically and emotionally successful. But now I think it had an added bonus—it taught me to associate breastfeeding with a personal reward, which probably is a big reason why I was able to keep going through those trying first couple weeks.
So recently I decided to use the tactic on another habit. In the past two months I had gotten out of the habit of waking up earlier than my family in order to have some quiet moments to read the Bible and to pray. I started setting my alarm for the same time each day (cue), going downstairs to read a chapter of the Bible and to pray (routine), and drinking a cup of hot coffee while I did so (reward).
So far, the strategy works! I’ve gotten up to read and pray almost every morning, and starting to remember the inherent and truer reward of that intimate time with the Lord each day. Maybe one day I’ll actually wake up out of anticipation for the presence of God and not for a cup of measly coffee, but in the meantime I’m going to trick my stupid brain into doing what’s best for it.
What about you? How do you form a new habit? What helps? Have you ever tried the reward system? Did it work?
(Photo by Hieu Le)