Charles Duhigg, in his popular book The Power of Habit, explains that habits are different from our normal behavior. Instead of making wise decisions based on information, we are directed into a habitual routine by a cue. The alarm rings and we get out of bed. The commercial comes on TV and we get up and head to the kitchen. Once we develop the habit, the cue leads to the behavior and we don’t think about it any more.
It’s a lot like stepping on an escalator.
Until we get off the escalator, we’re not making decisions about where to go. We’re just along for the ride. Neurologists have found that habits are much like that escalator: once we start along the routine path, we’re not making good decisions or bad decisions. Our brains turn control of our actions over to the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that is in charge of instincts and habits. This frees up the part of the brain that thinks clearly and makes decisions so that we can concentrate on other things.
That’s why we sometimes find ourselves taking the turn to work when we’re driving somewhere on a Saturday, or reaching for a piece of candy just because there’s a jar in the break room. A cue — like being in our car or seeing a treat — sets off the routine and we follow it without thinking.
Thanksgiving can be that way. Sitting down with the whole family is a cue that leads straight to second helpings of Aunt Ruth’s pumpkin pie or Grandpa’s famous marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Settling onto the sofa with our cousins to watch the football game may be a cue that leads to more beers than we would usually choose to drink. Thanksgiving night may be your cue to miss sleep to get to the midnight sales, and then skip the gym for the rest of the week, instead recovering on the couch while watching old movies.
One day or one weekend may not make much of a difference in your health, but for some people, the indulgence of Thanksgiving is a cue that sets off a routine of self-indulgence lasting till New Year’s. Good habits like exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep, and practicing moderation are replaced by special holiday habits like going to parties every night, getting too little sleep, and relying on cookies and hot chocolate to keep awake through the afternoon.
Fortunately, we make decisions before and after we step on the escalator. Pay attention to the cues that lead to holiday habits you don’t want to encourage… and the ones that lead to good habits, too.
Here are some ways you can avoid falling into bad habits over the holidays this year:
- Build yourself a new habit escalator. Add a cue that will encourage you to exercise, for example, such as putting your gym shoes next to the bed, setting the dog leash where you’ll see it when you get home from work, or making a walking date with a friend
- Disrupt the habit by changing the path of the escalator. Put out a bowl of fresh fruit instead of a bowl of holiday sweets, for example. The cue that leads you to snack will lead to a healthy snack.
- Stop and think before stepping onto the escalator — once you take that first step, you will probably be on the escalator till the end of the ride. So, for example, if you know you tend to party more than you really want to during the holidays, write appointments for yourself on your calendar for early bedtimes or nights in. That will give you a minute to think before you head out — and you can choose not to step onto the escalator this time.
If you do end up on that habit escalator, remember — you can get off when you get to the end of the ride. If today sees you overextended and rushing for fast food or grabbing a cigarette, tomorrow doesn’t have to. Be aware of your cues and habits, and you’ll have a head start on those New Year’s Resolutions.