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February 22, 2012

Smart Girls, Bad Habits

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Here's how it works: All habits, good or bad, can be broken down into three components, called a "habit loop." It begins with a craving, a cue — a certain time of day, for example — that triggers your brain to go on autopilot and indulge in a habit, like lighting up a cigarette or snacking. That routine is followed by a reward, like a feeling of relief or distraction from boredom. This is the emotional payoff the brain needs to decide whether a routine is worth becoming a habit. "Rewards are key because they satisfy cravings," notes Duhigg. "Focusing on rewards trains that part of the brain responsible for linking positive emotions to new habits, which makes them easier to maintain."

Say you and your coworkers have an after-work ritual of hitting happy hour together every evening. But you'd like to save a few calories and a few bucks. What is the reward you really crave from cocktail time? Is it the socializing? If so, try switching the activity to a Spin class with great music you and they can do together. Is it the relaxation? Maybe a hot, luxurious bath could be an option.

Sounds easy, but why hasn't anyone thought of this before? "People spend a lot of time trying to break habits using willpower, but research is showing that habits are the opposite of willpower," explains Duhigg. "With willpower, you have to make a decision, which can be derailed by life's stresses. Habits require no willpower, no decision — they stick because they are effortless and automatic. The key to changing behavior is to reinforce the habits you want with the right reward."

For months, Emily Esson, 24, a jewelry designer in Loomis, California, had tried to practice yoga more consistently. "It always seemed like such a hassle — finding my mat, changing my clothes, getting to class. Yoga was just another thing on my to-do list," she recalls. No wonder she could count on one hand how often she went. That is, until she started to focus less on the challenges of getting to class and more on how good she felt afterward (the reward). It was a small tweak, but it worked. Esson started going to yoga more often. Pretty soon, she developed a new routine: She wears a sports bra under her daytime clothes and stashes a mat and a clean change of clothes in the trunk of her car. Now whenever she wavers, she thinks about how relaxed yoga makes her feel. "That's enough to get me there — I crave that feeling," she says.

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