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Creatures of Habit

Do you remember your first time parallel parking? At first, it was challenging and stressful. But the more you grew comfortable reversing and pulling your car in, it became easier — almost habitual, you could say.

There’s an evolutionary logic behind our habits: they conserve time and mental energy. That’s a good thing! Yet, this very time and resource-saving function our brains perform is also what makes us vulnerable to bad habits. Like, eating cookies.

For the longest time, Charles Duhigg, a business reporter at the New York Times, would leave his desk at around 3:15 in the afternoon and visit the office’s cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie. Frustrated with his inability to break the cookie habit, and curious about the habits of others, Charles talked to a handful of psychologists and neuroscientists. How long does it take a habit – good or bad – to form? How are bad habits broken? Why are old habits hard to break and new ones hard to form? What he found has major implications for life in recovery.

Charles writes that at the core of every habit is a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process: first there’s a cue (or trigger), then the behavior itself, and finally a reward, a good feeling that reinforces the loop. Many of our daily behaviors, from that after-lunch cookie to the order we put on our shoes, are not really decisions – they’re habits. But changing your habits isn’t a matter of simply powering through them. Willpower alone is not enough.

So how do we develop new habits and break old ones? Advances in behavioral science suggest that change isn’t about focusing on the behavior itself. Rather, we need to tinker with the cues and rewards that keep the habit going. To break a habit, try finding a new behavior that’s triggered by the old cue. The behavior should also be rewarding. For Charles Duhigg, he found that the real reward he was seeking at 3:15 each afternoon wasn’t the cookie itself, but rather the friendly banter with colleagues in the cafeteria. Now, at his 3:15 cue, Charles takes a walk around the office and gossips with coworkers. He has replaced his old behavior with a healthier one, losing weight in the process!

The 12-Steps aren’t so different from Charles’ approach. Say you have a bad day and come home from work. This is the cue for you to go to the bar (old routine). The relief from the stress you get from drinking and socializing is your reward.

AA uses a similar cue and reward system. But, instead of hitting the bar or picking up from your dealer after a stressful day, you’re encouraged go to a meeting where you can socialize with others and have a cathartic experience. You’re also encouraged to share about your problems instead of bottling them up. It’s a reward that’s similar to drinking.

Developing new habits in this way will help you maintain sobriety – or maybe even just a healthier diet!