This week’s challenge is about introducing a new or altering a current evening habit to try and improve the quality of your sleep. We know that our lives are essentially a combination of hundreds of habits that dictate our behaviour. But how can we manipulate them to benefit our health and wellbeing?

Below we have broken down the three elements of the habit cycle and provided some practical tips on how to change them to have a positive impact on your health.

The habit cycle

Cue > Response > Reward

The cue can be defined as the trigger, this is essentially what nudges you into the response. For example, the alarm clock going off in the morning is the cue, your response is to press the ‘snooze’ button, your reward is an extra 10 minutes in bed.

It could also be the time of day. Many people report feeling ‘peckish’ around 3pm in the afternoon. This then triggers them to walk to the kitchen and get a snack, possibly some biscuits or a piece of fruit, a perfectly normal response. You then feel rewarded by either the sugar or the feeling of not feeling so hungry any more.

How can we change existing ‘unhelpful’ habits?

The first step is to identify the existing habit, often defined by the response. Let’s use a common habit as an example; snacking.

You then need to identify why you keep repeating this habit, so what is the reward? In this example, snacking - particularly snacking on sugary foods - will interact with the reward centres in your brain, giving you a temporary boost in your mood.

You’ve identified the response, and the reward - so you know what you’re doing and why you keep returning to it. But what is the cue? In this example, it is the time of day - every evening around 8pm after your dinner, you sit down to watch television and reach for the snack. 

Great, so you’ve now identified the full cycle to your evening snacking habit. What next?

Let’s start with the cue. It could be that you’ve decided that you watch enough TV and want to do something else with your evening. The time of 8pm remains the same, but instead of watching TV and responding with a snack, you take a 10-minute walk around the block instead. 

You’ve therefore changed your cue, response, and reward in one hit.

But let’s say you thoroughly enjoy your evening TV, you’ve had a long day at work and spent an hour in the gym in the morning - TV provides you with a feeling of relaxation and allows you to settle down before bedtime. In this case, you’d need to focus on a different response

Instead of reaching for the snack cupboard, you make a cup of herbal tea instead. You feel relaxed and happy that you can enjoy the TV without the guilt of knowing you’ve unnecessarily snacked on sugary foods.

What about introducing a new helpful habit into your day?

You first need to identify what it is you’d like to start doing, a common one is exercise. Exercise is quite vague, so you’d need to clearly state exactly what you want to start doing, in this example, we will use ‘morning workout’.

But how to kickstart this new habit? Select a cue. In this instance, it will be going to bed in your exercise gear, you’ll then wake up, and already be ready to turn on your laptop and follow your favourite workout. 

Then identify a reward, this is essential - as it is the reward that will motivate you to continue this new behaviour. In this instance, exercise provides you with a mood boost as it encourages the release of endorphins which give you that feeling of the ‘runner’s high’. 

This will not happen overnight, a behaviour can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to become automatic, and turn into a habit. This is where the reward element is so powerful, choose a strong reward, that you know will motivate you, and you will increase your chances of successfully implementing a new habit.

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