When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut? What did you say to your kids on the way out the door? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the television?
Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they're not. They're habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, and how often we exercise have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. We've learned how habits form -- and why they are so hard to break.
As a result, we now know how to create good habits and change bad ones like never before.
At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
If you want to start an exercise habit, according to studies, it is essentially that you take advantage of the habit loop. Take, for instance, creating a habit to go running each morning. Studies say that you must choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day) and a clear reward (such as a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles or the endorphin rush you get from a jog).
But, at first, the rewards inherent in exercise aren't enough. So to teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy -- such as a small piece of chocolate -- after your workout.
This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to loose 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.