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New Year, New You: Creating Healthier Habits

New Year, New You: Creating Healthier Habits

Al Waller: New Year’s 2023 is just days away! While many of us make our New Year’s resolutions around this time, you have to wonder how many of us will actually keep them. To increase our chances of success in 2023, learning about habits when thinking of goals might just provide the necessary impetus to achieve success because let's face it…we are all creatures of habit, and habits make up our behaviors—which may be health-promoting or harmful. For instance, reaching for our gym shoes in the morning, or scrolling social media, are both examples of habits that might kick off your day.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host Al Waller, and today we’re joined by Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and she’s here to discuss the power of habits. She’ll walk us through what habits are, how they differ from routines, and how to change them.

Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners that we would love to hear from you and get to know what topics you’d like to hear about. Please drop us a line at [email protected].

It’s good to have you here today, Mihaela.

Mihaela Vincze: It’s good to be back, Al.

Al Waller: If you wouldn’t mind, why don’t we start off with the basics in terms of what habits actually are.

Mihaela Vincze: Habits are behaviors that become automatic. They can form without a person intending to develop them, but they can also be deliberately created—or broken—to suit one’s personal goals.

Al Waller: Interesting. So, in essence, habits may become automatic or second nature, which makes me wonder – then, how are habits different from routines?

Mihaela Vincze: Habits are different than routines in that they’re not performed in response to an impulse. Routines require a higher degree of intention and effort, whereas habits are a bit more automatic. Writing in your journal or going to the gym may be a routine because you feel like you need to do those things—they’re not done without thought. However, repeating a routine enough times can turn it into a new habit.

Al Waller: Got it – and as you've noted, some routines can turn into good or bad habits. For instance, back in the day – I'm talking way back in the day, I might add – after enjoying a nice dinner, I'd light up a cigarette. I know that sounds pretty gross today!

But on the flip side, as I've related on past conversations, most every morning I reach for my sneakers to head to the gym for a workout, which is obviously a much better and healthier alternative or routine.

Could you talk to us more about how habits are formed?

Mihaela Vincze: Psychologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a break-through discovery in 1999 of a cue-routine-reward feedback loop. These elements that produce habits have been called the “cue”, the “routine”, and the “reward”. These have also been dubbed “the habit loop”, in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit book:

  • The cue is the trigger, which serves as a prompt to do something. For instance, when your phone receives a notification, you are reminded to check it. You may even have a “craving” or the desire to engage in a specific action.
  • The routine is the behavior and the action that you take. When you get that notification, you then go check your phone’s notification, but you also scroll through social media.
  • Lastly, the reward is the benefit you receive from the behavior. The reward helps us determine if we want to continue the behavior. For instance, we get validation from our social media engagement, and it brings us joy. 

Al Waller: I see your point, Mihaela. Although, I'll point out that I'm hearing about a lot more drama and a lot less joy emanating from social media these days. So then, how do you go about modifying or changing a habit?

Mihaela Vincze: That's a really good question because a habit is practiced so regularly that it can be hard to change it.

The first thing you want to do is truly understand why this new habit matters to you. Without clear answers, it can be hard to stay on track to change. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Why do you want to change this habit?
  • How did the habit begin?
  • How has the habit changed over time?
  • Does this habit affect other people or areas of your life?
  • What are the rewards from this habit?
  • What are the negative consequences of this habit (if any)?

Al Waller: Agreed, because I suspect understanding why your new habit matters is crucial to continuing to put in the work towards maintaining it. To go a step further, once you've reflected on this, what's the next step to changing a habit?

Mihaela Vincze: Next you want to identify the cue, routine, and reward that are involved in your specific habit. After you’ve done this, you can re-engineer the habit by thinking of a new habit loop to replace it. You can do this by choosing a healthy routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavioral pattern that produces the new reward you want.

Al Waller: I see. Then, could you give us an example of this in action?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes. Let’s say that every day after work you go home and spend hours scrolling social media instead of exercising. You know that you need to spend an hour each day exercising but keeping up with your friends online helps you unwind. Your goal is to implement a routine that accounts for more gym time and yields the same relaxed feelings of spending time online. But how might you do that?

One way would be to encourage your friends to meet you at the gym and workout together after work. Another routine would be to work out on your own and then make time for social media scrolling on the weekends.

In either case, you replace an old habit (scrolling social media rather than working out) with a new healthier one (working out and scrolling social media at a different time). By changing these routines, you keep the reward of scrolling social media while gaining new ones: taking charge of your health by working out. By changing your routine, you increase your chances of earning multiple rewards and forming a new habit.

Al Waller: Well, that all sounds pretty good to me, especially the idea of increasing more onsite social Interaction – like person to person. That said, I do find the idea of multiple rewards pretty interesting.

Do you have any other tips for those who want to change a habit?

Mihaela Vincze: Take a “habit” you already practice and add on one new thing to your “routine”. For instance, if you want to write more, you may find writing in your journal while drinking your regular morning coffee makes this easier to remember to do this. This practice is coined “habit stacking” in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. It’s a lot easier to pair a new behavior with one that already exists.

Al Waller: I think that's an excellent concept and something I'd actually be interested in trying myself.

Now, let's say you find yourself failing at a habit you really want to break, what then?

Mihaela Vincze: Sociologist Dr. Christine Carter says our success at adopting a new habit depends on our willingness to be bad at it at first. Don’t get stuck in an “all-or-nothing” mindset for creating new habits. When it comes to new habits, done is better than perfect. Having intentions, being consistent, and reflecting on your progress will help you reach your goals.

Al Waller: Rome wasn’t built in a day – so, easy does it! Where can listeners go to learn more about today's topic?

Mihaela Vincze: The books I referenced are great for helping you on your new habit journey, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Cassie Holmes’s Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most may also be helpful for taking charge of your life.

Al Waller: Sounds like some pretty good reading there, Mihaela, and thanks again for joining us today.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

And in case you missed them, be sure to check out our previous episodes on tips for caring for your mental health during the holidays and financial conversations. Also, in the coming weeks, we will be discussing financial-related goals for the new year and the health benefits of traveling.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement.

You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.