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How to reset your habits derailed by 2020

July 8, 2020 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

I know you gave it your best shot. You stuck to your 2020 New Year’s resolutions as long as you could.

That is, up until the gyms closed and all your good intentions to workout at home gave in to the weight of a global pandemic.

Good try!

What better time than the mid-year to get back on the wagon? To come back to life along with the fitness centers and your local economy?

It won’t be easy to change some of the habits formed while under quarantine. But it doesn’t have to be hard.

You just have to get to the point where you feel better making yourself healthier than you feel when doing nothing.

First, I find it really helps to understand where good habits come from.

How your brain creates a habit

Habits begin when we behave in a certain way to reach a certain goal.

I brush my teeth every night before bed to keep my teeth and gums healthy.

When the behavior works, and we want the same outcome, we do the same thing again. Repetition allows our brains to connect certain “cues” with certain responses.

I’ve put on my pajamastime to brush.

When you’re building this cue-response relationship, you’re using the parts of your brain (pre-frontal cortex) that help you make conscious decisions. But as you repeat the behavior, the information that connects goal, cue, and response moves to a different part of your brain—a sort of behavioral autopilot that no longer remembers the original goal or outcome. It just remembers the cue and the response.

To put it another way, two parts of your mind are involved. Our “intentional” mind helps us to act in ways that meet a desired outcome that we’re aware of. However, when the “habitual” mind—the “autopilot”—is engaged, and we’re much less aware of what we’re doing or even why.

That’s a habit. And habits can be powerful.

What popcorn reveals about our habits

Study subjects were asked to taste-test fresh and stale popcorn. No surprise: they preferred fresh. But when they were given popcorn in a movie theater, those who had a habit of eating popcorn at the movies—cue is movies, habit is popcorn—ate just as much stale popcorn as participants in the fresh popcorn group.

That is, the intentional mind went off the rails and people reverted to habit—without even knowing it.

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Another example: 35 percent of people exposed to a healthy eating program called Take 5, promoting five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, came away believing they should eat those five servings. Only 11 percent of people actually did so. The program changed people’s intentions. It did not, however, change their habitual behavior.

How to create new habits—and feel good about it

There’s agreement among many experts on the necessary steps involved in creating a new habit that lasts for the long term. They use different words to describe the steps, but the processes they describe are all pretty similar.

For example, one prescribes “The Three R’s”

  • Reminder, aka cue or trigger
  • Routine, aka response
  • Reward, aka reinforcement

These three words are effective prompts to help you break a bad habit and replace it with a good one.

Fleshed out, these small steps show how simple it is to adopt new habits in three basics steps.

3 steps to re-forming new habits derailed by 2020

1) Set a goal, declare your intention

Frame it as a positive, not a negative, that is, if it’s about food, don’t say “I’m going to stop eating _________.” What you’re saying there is “I’m going to deprive myself of things I love.”

No, no, no. It’s “I’m going to improve my health by eating more __________.” That’s positive.

For best results, follow your decision with immediate action. For example, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables, then empty the fridge of your habitual, tempting, less healthy foods. Replace those with fruits and vegetables. 

That way, you remove the cues that would make your habitual response kick in (“I see bacon, I eat bacon”). And at the same time, you’re creating a new cue and response model (“I see fruit, I eat fruit”). That helps you meet your goal.

2) Repeat, repeat, repeat

Changing your autopilot won’t happen overnight. Studies show that it can take as little as 15 days for a new habit to begin to stick. I know, 15 days might feel like a long time when you’re aching to change. But, trust me, it will go by faster than you think.

3) Congratulate yourself

Finally, every time you do the right thing, give yourself a standing ovation. Doing so will encourage you to do the same right thing the next time, and the next time, and so on—in time you’ll turn intentional behavior into habitual behavior.

I hope you find these tips make getting back in healthy gear a lot easier. 2020 hit a rough patch for sure, but there’s still plenty of time to get back on track.

So stick with it, build that new habit, and 6 months months from now, you’ll ring in a new year looking at your healthier, happier, new self, with satisfaction—because you’ll feel great about making good on your promise to yourself.

Take good care.

Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Last Updated: July 8, 2020
Originally Published: April 1, 2015

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