Seemingly insignificant acts you do throughout the day, like reading your favorite novel before bed, taking your meals at a specific time, getting up early in the morning, etc., are part of a bigger scheme. Individually these acts may seem unimportant, but collectively, they form a routine. Habits tend to be automatic and occur subconsciously. They’re like second nature to you. In terms of psychology, the American Journal of Psychology defines habits as ‘… a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”
The sequence of these activities collectively forms a routine. A routine remains more or less the same every day. It is the structure that you follow and feel comfortable in, anything out of which structure is capable of disrupting your calm.
From a psychological standpoint, habit formation and routines are an essential part of one’s mental well-being. Behavioral change has been proven to assist in minimizing symptoms of mild anxiety and stress. This article delves into the mental health benefits of establishing routines and healthy habits. The topics that are discussed include:
- How are habits formed?
- Creating healthy habits and routines.
- The mental health benefits of habit building and routines.
- Routines and habit formation at Mooditude.
- Healthy habits and routines to include in your daily life.
- Breaking harmful habits.
How Are Habits Formed?
Most of the actions that we do are almost instinctive to the point we don’t even spare a moment to think about what we’re doing. You walk into a dark room, you instinctively turn on the light; you check your phone first thing in the morning; you check the weather before going off to work. These actions go unnoticed because they’re part of your daily routine. In fact, not doing them would probably make you notice their lack and make you feel uneasy.
These acts have already become a huge part of our lives, but what happens when you learn that a habit has been causing you more harm than good, what do you do when you need to incorporate certain healthy habits into your routine but find it tough because how can you just get up and decide to adopt a habit consciously? It seems impossible. However, it’s not that difficult when you learn the psychology behind habit formation. What exactly goes on in your brain to make you adopt or break off from a habit?
James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits gives very good insight into healthy habit building and breaking off bad ones. He explains in detail and in very easy words how habit formation occurs and how understanding it can help in adopting or breaking habits. He explains it with reference to the ‘habit loop’ theory introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit.
Clear modifies the original concept and adds another component to the three-component concept initially introduced. He explains that habits proceed through four stages: cue, craving, response, and reward.
A cue anticipates the reward. It is the information that propels your brain to act. The cues are ordinary, familiar triggers that send a signal to the brain, thus initiating the loop of habit formation. Cues are obvious enough to encourage you to act accordingly to achieve the reward that you anticipate when stimulated by the trigger.
This anticipation that follows immediately after you come across a trigger is the next stage: craving. Cravings give you a dopamine rush, which in turn, encourages and motivates you to achieve the reward that you foresaw when you looked at the trigger. Cravings vary from person to person. Something that excites you won’t necessarily excite others to act as well. Cravings are thus very influential in the making of a habit because without a craving you won’t be motivated enough to respond.
The response is the physical act or the habit itself that you do upon being prompted by the craving. Apart from the cue and the craving, a response also depends upon your ability to do something. You look at an airplane (cue), you desire to become a pilot (craving), but you have a condition that prevents you from standing or sitting upright. Response won’t occur in that situation because your craving will die down as soon as you realize it is physically and practically impossible, thus discontinuing the loop.
The fourth and final stage that loops back to the first stage defined by James Clear is the reward. The reward is the objective, it is what comes to mind when you look at the cue, it is what plants the seed of desire inside you, and it is also what prompts you to respond. If, by the end, you manage to successfully attain the reward you had your eyes on in the beginning, your brain will be more likely to repeat that action in the future. The more you repeat the action, the more accustomed you get. The more accustomed you get, the more likely it will become a habit.
For example, Cue: You walk into a messy room. Craving: You desire to relax in a clean atmosphere. Response: You clean up the mess. Reward: You can finally relax in peace.
The ultimate result? It will become a habit to only feel relaxed in a clean atmosphere and whenever you see something messed up, you’ll crave to tidy it up.
Creating Healthy Habits and Routines
By understanding the psychology behind habit and routine formation, it is now much easier to create, adapt, and maintain healthy habits and routines. Since we know that it is the cue that initiates the habit loop, then essentially, if you wish to build a habit and eventually make it into a routine, you must first focus on determining which cues work for you. It’s also pertinent to notice that not everyone is triggered by particular cues the same way.
Building a habit is a conscious act and it requires focus and determination. Since building a habit entails you having the desired goal, an objective, or end result in mind, it means you already have in mind what the reward is that you want to work towards. Suppose your desired result or aim is to feel better about yourself and boost your self-esteem and self-confidence; this is the reward you have in mind, the reward you’re striving for.
Now, for the cue, you need to make sure that it is obvious and clear, not at all obscure or difficult to encounter. At the same time, it should be imposing enough to demand attention, for instance, you could place a large, imposing mirror in your room, or a poster with a positive affirmation written on it. You can make it even more specific if you wish to build a habit to repeat your positive affirmations at the same time every day.
Let’s suppose your goal is to make it a routine to say your affirmations twice a day, once in the morning and once while at work. You could write your affirmations on your bathroom mirror so when brushing your teeth in the morning, the very obvious cue triggers you to respond. Similarly, you could tape sticky notes on your laptop or your work desk so they prompt you to crave the satisfaction of attaining the reward by prompting you to respond to them.
The craving should be interesting enough to make you desire and motivate you to work for satisfying it. If your craving in boosting your self-esteem and self-confidence is to be able to make more friends and assert your self-importance, it’s not strong enough of a craving to make you want to build a routine since it’s bound to die down when people get bored of you and you find yourself back at square one.
On the other hand, if you crave to be able to live a much healthier and happier life, boost your mental and physical health, and attract better partners in the future, it can keep you motivated enough to enable you to build a habit and routine. The response or the action, or the habit that you’re trying to build should not be tough, but easy enough to adhere to. For example: deciding you’re going to start going to the gym every day to help boost your self-confidence may be tougher to adhere to than beginning with positive affirmations. That is not to say that you should not think about upgrading eventually but rather begin with something small and gradually make your way upwards because forming habits isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time and patience. According to Mental Health America, MHA, it takes approximately 66 days for something to become a habit and a part of your natural routine for an average person, although it can take longer for others.
The Mental Health Benefits of Habit Building and Routines
Suffering from mental illness is taxing and can overwhelm you to the point that nothing else makes sense to you. A lack of routine and planning can actually cause you a lot of stress and anxiety. Sometimes, especially for people suffering from anxiety disorders, predictable situations can have a calming effect since they erase the constant worry of the unknown. In addition, a routine, a set of daily habits can give you a sense of control over your life which a lot of people suffering from mental disorders feel like they have lost.
According to studies, having a routine can assist in curbing the symptoms of several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder — through a consistent sleep routine — attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), insomnia, stress and anxiety disorders, and even addiction recovery.
According to Mental Health America, MHA, People with more daily routines have lower levels of distress when facing problems with their health or negative life events. MHA also suggests a connection between strong and healthy routines and good mental health.
Following are some of the benefits of habit formation and having a healthy routine that is good for your mental well-being:
- Having a predictable routine can be beneficial in reducing unnecessary stress and anxiety.
- Healthy habits and routines allow you a semblance of control when you’re feeling like nothing’s going the way you want it to.
- A consistent bedtime routine is a healthy habit that can combat lethargy during the day, keep you more focused, and even help with insomnia.
- Routines give consistency to your life. By following a routine, you can better manage your time and make time for leisure and fun activities.
- A consistent routine can maintain and even enhance your motivation levels and keep you productive.
- In addiction recovery, following a pattern of habits or a strict routine can minimize the chances of relapse.
- Routines can assist you in reaching your goals and objectives much faster.
- Mental disorders like depression cause you to feel low and suck motivation and inspiration right out of you. Healthy habits and routines can help maintain interest in activities.
- With a routine, you always have something to look forward to instead of letting your mind be victim to unproductive and demoralizing thoughts.
Routines and Habit Formation at Mooditude
Routines are the heartbeat of Mooditude. They connect your mind and body for optimum results. Your physical health and mental health share a bond that can be strengthened in a healthy manner by employing healthy habits and simple behavioral changes. In other words, simply incorporating fun activities and beneficial workouts can assist in keeping your mental health symptoms at bay.
At Moodtiude, you can set goals that you desire to achieve but find difficult to work on while tracking progress as well. To achieve these goals that you have set for yourself, Mooditude allows you to create routines to help incorporate healthy habits into your daily life.
The Routines feature on the app allows you to either choose activities from the pre-vetted list or create your own. Mooditude has divided the day into four parts: Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night. This better allows you to achieve your goals for the day by breaking the day into four parts to ensure it doesn’t seem like a daunting task.
In addition, it gives you an overview of how long your tasks should take and even allows you to set a reminder to ensure you don’t forget and to encourage and motivate you to complete your tasks for each day. In the Insights section, you can track how your mood has progressed due to keeping up with a routine and achieving your goals.
Healthy Habits and Routines to Include in Your Daily Life for Better Mental Well-Being
If you’re having a tough time deciding where to start, here are a few ideas to get you started on your habit formation journey:
- Set up a sleep schedule and try to stick to it. Going to sleep early can allow you to feel refreshed and rejuvenated in the morning, ensuring a boost of motivation.
- Begin your day with positive affirmations. Declarations of faith in yourself each morning help boost self-confidence and improve mood.
- Include simple exercises into your routine. A simple, 30-minute daily workout is enough to get you feeling refreshed.
- Never skip breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It helps keep you physically and mentally fit.
- Track your achievements and practice gratitude. Journaling is a great way to do just that, and it’s also fun so you won’t be bored doing it.
- Practice mindfulness. Whether through mindful eating or meditation, a mere fifteen minutes dedicated to practicing mindfulness can do wonders for your mental health.
- Practice forgiveness. It’s important for the sake of your mental well-being that you learn to forgive not just others but also yourself.
- Give yourself some love. Self-love and self-care activities are simple and easy to do. Do something that you enjoy doing every day.
- Spend time with loved ones. Granted, some you-time is very important, but so is spending time with loved ones. Try to see them or speak to them on the phone every day. It doesn’t have to be a long chat, keep it short and personal.
Breaking Unhealthy Habits
Now that we have learned about forming habits and routines, it’s time to highlight the fact that sometimes, you will need to break habits as well. What about the harmful habits that are already part of our lives? How do we get rid of those? It sounds like a tough task to suddenly just stop doing what you’ve been doing for ages but it’s really not that difficult, especially since we have learned how our brain works when forming habits. What if we say breaking habits is as simple as doing the opposite of what we did when trying to build healthy habits?
To learn how to break unhealthy habits, we must go back to the habit loop — cue, craving, response, reward. Let’s revise what we learned about forming habits: make the cue obvious, the craving compelling, the response uncomplicated, and the reward satisfying.
Now, when you’re trying to break an unhealthy habit, you simply reverse this recipe. You make the cue invisible, the craving unappealing, the response tougher, and the reward dissatisfying.
Here’s an example: the bad habit you’re trying to quit is excessive use of social media before bed. Before going to bed, make sure you put your phone away somewhere it’s not visible to you, hence making the cue invisible. However, simply making it invisible doesn’t mean you’ll stop craving it. You’ll still crave the entertainment that comes from using social media, so what do you do? You make the craving unappealing. To make it unappealing, think about how tired you will feel in the morning if you use your phone late at night instead of going to sleep.
To make it tough to respond to your craving, you can place your phone in the other room, log out of all social media, uninstall your apps, and perhaps even turn off your phone. The more obstructions there are, the tougher it’ll be to act upon your craving. Then finally, make the reward as dissatisfying as possible. The reward that your brain craves is pleasure and satisfaction. Challenge your brain by going through all the issues of using social media before bed; you’ll feel unrested in the morning, it will mess up your sleep routine, and it will only leave you anxious and with less time to sleep.
It’s not a guarantee that this will work for everyone since everyone has different triggers and responses so it’s best to devise a plan that caters to you, personally.
Making or breaking habits isn’t as difficult as our brain makes it out to be. We crave short-term satisfaction in replacement for long-term benefits. Breaking bad habits is important for your well-being and so is replacing them with healthier ones to lead a happier and healthier life.
Mooditude offers features such as goal setting, mood tracking, routine and habit formation, insight, 24/7 forum, and a bunch of courses to read. Check out the ‘Connect Mind & Body’ course to learn more about how routines and healthy habits can impact your mental health.