Creating Powerful Habits, part 3

This summer I will be working with my three kids to instill some new, healthy habits that will hopefully last a lifetime. We will be testing out the latest research on habit creation. It suggests that to set a pattern of behavior there needs to be a trigger that simultaneously sparks a desire for a specific reward and starts the action pattern to get to the reward. For example, donuts arriving at the office triggers a mouth-watering craving and before you know it, you are half way through your first donut.

The last three weeks I have attempted to set a new habit for myself of jogging first thing in the morning, three mornings a week. I am not a runner and have not been exercising regularly so this is a challenge. Using what I have learned, I first set the schedule and tried to make the behavior pattern as simple as possible. Running clothes are by the bed, the route is set, the time is set. Variables and choices need to be eliminated as much as possible to create a specific habit. The mere process of making a choice is mentally draining and diminishes the will power I need to get out the door and start my run. Habits in a way are the exact opposite of thoughtful choice. We can make a thoughtful choice to create or change a habit but the habit itself is automated.

In my attempt to set this behavior pattern the challenge is getting out the door. Once I am on the path all I need to do is run the pattern. I’m still working on setting the proper reward. Because scent is such a power trigger, I change-up the shampoo and soap in the shower on days when I run. I am also tracking and documenting the runs in detail so I can visually see the pattern I’m creating.

I am highly motivated to set my new jogging habit. I doubt the kids will be personally motivated to create the habits I choose. That means setting a simple behavior pattern and consistent, high value rewards will be key. Although I won’t finalize my choices for new habits to instill until school is out, my short list for all three kids includes:

  • Daily morning exercise and/or stretching
  • Daily morning face washing and application of sunscreen
  • Morning bed making
  • Evening bedroom straightening

Of course each of the above is just an idea. To make them habits the specific behaviors need to be broken down into detailed actions that can be consistently replicated with valuable, self-reinforcing rewards at the end of each habit.

Now here is where it gets interesting when trying to instill lifelong habits in kids. Frequently adults turn to the easy rewards of treats (usually some form of sugar) or money when trying to encourage kids. Our local public elementary schools consistently use candy to encourage the younger kids and then candy and fake money (that can be spent on donated toys and treats) in the older grades. However, in order for a habit to be internalized, I suspect the reward also needs to be internalized. Rewards for habits that last a lifetime need to be rewards that last a lifetime and work for kids living at home, young adults on their own with limited resources, and older adults. Candy is cheap but we really don’t want another generation growing up fat  because they “deserve” the candy bar. Empty calories are not a good reward. While working hard as an adult might lead to more income, it is not something that easily translates into a reliable reward. For instance, I think my run this morning was a $100 effort but I’m still waiting on that reward.

I need to develop rewards that are highly reinforcing for the kids and will last a lifetime. Any ideas?

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