The Power of Routine


New Year’s resolutions are somewhat of a joke. It’s estimated that over three quarters of participants fail and lose their resolve by February, which is part of the reason why I never make them. I’m a firm believer that it takes conviction to make or break a good habit, not imaginary numbers or pages on a calendar. However, if one does want to see changes around the start of the new year, I am a proponent of putting the principles into practice earlier on; in the Fall (around the Autumnal equinox) so that the groundwork is laid, and the changes can start to manifest in the new year.

Many people are familiar with the 21 day principle – first introduced by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in 1960 – which claims it takes that amount of time to make or break a habit. As this principle has become widely-known, it was also become more disputed. Recent research claims it takes an average of 65 days to form a habit. However, there is something to be said for habitual practice of any period of time.

Even a streak of solely two consecutive days practicing a routine or devoid of a bad habit can give the individual a sense of accomplishment and pride in their abilities and willpower. As you continue to exercise your self-control “muscle”, it becomes stronger and more character is built.

“The general machinery by which we build both [good and bad] habits are the same, whether it’s a habit for overeating or a habit for getting to work without really thinking about the details,” says Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

I consider myself to be a man of substance, and not in the way that I wish I meant. I have long found my brain to be beholden to external, ingestible stimuli. Whether it be caffeine, nicotine, sugar or alcohol, my mind was always searching for the next substance to latch onto, the next “fix”. This may be a common trait in others as well, as the human brain is hardwired to choose stimulation over boredom, or novelty over routine in this particular case.

In the past, I needed something sweet in the morning with my coffee, and some semblance of dessert before bed. Dessert after meals was always a cigarette, and of course, a beer was needed to accompany dinner. In a sense, it was me rationalizing my poor lifestyle choices. On a physiological level, the external stimuli created feelings of excitement, and established a distraction-addiction loop.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pleasure-based habits are particularly difficult to break because the given behavior primes your brain to release dopamine. The more times the habit is repeated, the stronger the bond between the stimulus and the impulse to act on it becomes.

When you remove yourself from the pleasure-rewarding substance or behavior, the absence of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure-reward centers is what creates the craving to reengage with the stimulus. In these instances, the best tools I’ve found to combat cravings are meditation or reflection, and a change in routine.

Meditation and journaling at the end of the day help the individual look internally, and discover what they are thinking when they are engaged in the habit. Regular practice can allow the practitioner to see what’s causing the behavior. In my case, I was able to see that my tendencies towards substances were often a form of procrastination; whatever the substance in a given circumstance was a way of distracting my mind from the task at hand.

Mindfulness practice calms the mind and reduces the stress response (the fight-or-flight phenomenon) in the sympathetic nervous system. Essentially, meditation quiets the emotional side of the brain in favor of the rational one. And when thinking rationally, you are less likely to compulsively engage in a bad habit. One 2012 study suggests meditation practice after a period of exerting self-control can counteract the diminished willpower effect that often arises on subsequent self-control performance.

You have most likely heard of the power of writing goals and intentions down on paper, as motivational experts, life coaches and therapists commonly suggest for clients. The practice is beneficial for turning habits and routines into auto-generated responses. You are putting intent behind your goals, thus conjuring in the prefrontal cortex of your brain the action to be carried out.

Habit loops occur when things processed in prefrontal cortex for efficiency’s sake are transferred to the basal ganglia to ensure they are auto-generated responses, which don’t require additional energy to activate the prefrontal cortex. Basic functioning of the basal ganglia requires dopamine neurons to be released.

For example, imagine an individual tells himself at the end of the workday that, “when I am coming home from work, I will go to the gym”. This leads to an association between a particular stimulus, and an action that needs to be performed in the presence of that stimulus. When the given situation occurs, the planned response is then automatically carried out. Studies have shown that automatic behavior does not require self-control strength, meaning that it should not suffer from a temporary depletion of self-control in the way behaviors carried out by the prefrontal cortex do.

The other excellent method for making actions become automatic is, well, through taking action. And repetition of those actions. Or, in a lot of cases, repetition of non-action.

Neural Adaptation (Habituation) and Recovering Stimulus Sensitivity

Many of my habits, both for better or worse, changed abruptly when I first left the US. My sleep schedule, diet and definitely Internet usage were the three most noticeable differences.

Particularly in Mexico, I was often without wifi, due to several service outages and frequent moving. When I did manage to have a connection, 10mb was about the fastest possible speed. Frequent inconsistency in wifi strength allowed me to get over my tendency to rely on my laptop (the web) as a clutch.

Upon leaving the house, most times I wouldn’t bring my phone with me, for various reasons. Not wanting to have it stolen, for one thing, but also for the sake of general awareness. As I was in a foreign country – especially one with a connotation in the mainstream media of being unsafe – I wanted to be fully immersed in my surroundings. I have enough thoughts on the topic of being present in the moment for an entirely separate post, but several of the benefits of leaving your phone at home were picking up on cultural cues, learning the language better (practicing by listening to conversations) and maybe most importantly, better awareness of surroundings and your level of safety.

The more I engaged with the world around me, the less my mind was occupied with impulses towards my bad habits. As time passed, and I became further removed from my tendencies and addictions, my reliance on those vices melted away.

Additionally, when the bondage between the self and these high-intensity stimuli is broken, the individual is able to get the same level of pleasure or reward from less-intense dopamine triggers.

For example when you can ween yourself off or quit a sugar addiction cold turkey for a number of days (or weeks), the dopamine receptors in your brain will fire the same amount of neurons when you consume a few bites of dark chocolate that it would when you ate an ice cream or donut in the throes of an intense sugar addiction.

This phenomenon – in which sensitivity to stimuli is recovered through time away from that given stimulus – is known as habituation, or neural adaptation.

The concept describes the process in which a high-intensity stimulus dulls or desensitizes the receptors in the brain, and they no longer offer the same reward as they previously did from the same stimulus.

In a 2012 TedTalk, psychologist Douglas Lisle, Director of Research for TrueNorth Health Center and coauthor of The Pleasure Trap, uses the example of someone entering a living room during Christmastime to the wonderful scent of a Christmas tree, and then that scent “fading” after about 15 minutes.

Essentially, it is the same thing as the phenomenon of “building up a tolerance.” As we become accustomed or desensitized to a stimulus, a higher-intensity dosage is needed in order to achieve the same reward from the given stimulus.

He goes on to says that, “putting any system under deprivation for a while is a very good way to recover sensitivity.”

Sometimes out of necessity or scarcity, other times out of sheer determination, each time I successfully passed a given impulse through by mind without acting on it, my tendency towards those behaviors and habits weakened. Additionally, as my resolve strengthened in any particular sense, my discipline towards other unrelated poor habits improved as well.

The same is also true of positive, beneficial habits and routines. Even just exhibiting a behavior or carrying out a task for consecutive days can have a powerful effect on the psyche, emotion and motivation.

Momentum

In some cases, taking “baby steps” towards a desired routine or habit can have a positive effect on emotion and motivation, even on the very first day.

For example, I was extreme procrastinating finishing a particularly challenging article. A lot of the content was already there, but I needed to add more and edit the existing. I had seemingly run out of inspiration for the topic and my thesis.

However, to get back in the flow, in my head I committed myself to focus solely on editing existing content on day one back in the saddle. This seemed like a less daunting task than having to manifest new insights or antidotes for the article, which I thought I had exhausted.

After following through on what I set out to do, and editing a significant amount of the existing text, I felt accomplished, and had the drive to continue on the article. No doubt achieving this small milestone sparked a release of serotonin (the happiness hormone), and I was motivated to keep the “momentum” going.

It’s my opinion that dopamine is more associated with bad habits, i.e., vices and pleasure-seeking gratification, while serotonin is activated more with the reinforcement of positive habits and routines.

In the words of YouTube nutrition guru Dr. Eric Berg, “Dopamine is all about anticipating pleasure… as soon as you consume [a guilty-pleasure food], you don’t continue to increase dopamine. It’s kind of a precursor to actual eating it.”

And I think in a lot of cases, serotonin is actually decreased once the stimulus is indulged in, from feelings of guilt, disappointment, etc.

On the other hand, gratification from habituation of beneficial or positive behaviors increases serotonin release, and reinforces the likelihood the behavior will become routine.

What’s more, sticking to a regimen has been repeatedly scientifically proven to strengthen self-control in unrelated self-control domains. For example, a 2006 study found that regular physical exercise over a 2-months period fostered decreased smoking frequency and alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits.

These “little victories” increase feelings of fulfillment and thus happiness, and engage the mind in a domino-like effect, making it much more likely you will continue to pursue larger victories as the momentum builds.

Even something as simplistic as brushing your teeth or making the bed in the morning can have a profound effect on motivation. Morning routines are particularly beneficial because they put you on the right track early, but even taking initiative and accomplishing something you had intended to do later on in the day, especially when you think it had –up until that point – only been a waste, can put you on a roll or at the least set you up well for the next day.

I know when I practice Qigong or finally get down to writing in the evening after not doing anything for the betterment of society – for whatever reason – in the earlier part of the day, I feel connected, that I’m serving my purpose. And then it gets me stoked to fire on all cylinders the next day, and the ball just gets rolling from there…

Once the routine is extended beyond just consecutive days and improvement becomes apparent, the awareness of the benefits creates a sense of accomplishment, and as a byproduct, increased sense of wellbeing.

I know that with each additional day that I practiced any particular chosen discipline, or was able to turn down alcohol or sweets, I could better see the positive effects my change in habits had on my life, and how they were improving my psyche. Which only strengthened my resolve even more.

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