Developing Habits

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In order to be at our best for ourselves and those around us, particularly in a sustainable fashion, it is necessary to develop The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete

These include mind-based and body-based skills that allow us to leverage our biology and optimize our performance in any, and all, realms of life.  This includes recovery skills which allow us to pursue our full potential in a sustainable manner over the course of decades.  After all, we are not preparing for a single event but rather trying to be the best version of ourselves over the course of our life!

Mind-based skills include an understanding and application of polyvagal theory, awareness and meditation training, and development of other mindset skills.  Body-based skills include breathing training, exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep and recovery.  The details of these skills will be described further in future articles.  The focus of this article is how to develop habits which support proficiency in these skills.

An important starting point is self-reflection to determine current habits, levels of proficiency with various skills, and areas for improvement.  This may include identification of habits which need to be stopped as well as those that may already be strong.  How these habits fit within our daily routine is important to consider.

When considering habit formation, there are numerous references and paradigms which may be followed.  Two of the most evidence based approaches are provided by Andrew Huberman, PhD in his podcast, “Huberman Lab” and by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits:  An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.  By combining the perspectives each provide, we can develop a strong process to develop the habits we would like to develop to support The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.

Regardless of the habit formation paradigm we may use, it is important to understand that the process of developing new habits can be very challenging and difficult.  If this weren’t the case, then we would have no difficulty starting new habits and the realization that we were not able to follow through on ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ would not be familiar to many of us.  Given the challenges associated with habit formation, it is important to understand and work with our biology so as to avoid making the process even more challenging.  The evidence based practices that Huberman and Clear describe assist in this regard.

Huberman describes three different phases to each day, during which our brain and body are best able to accomplish certain tasks.  These phases are determined by specific patterns of release of neurochemicals which, effectively, prime our brain for certain functions.  By aligning the type of habit with these daily rhythms, we are best able to overcome the inertia associated with habit formation. 

The first phase occurs in the first 8 hours after waking up.  During this time, we are best suited towards tasks that require higher levels of focus and energy.  This is attributed to the cyclical and naturally elevated levels of specific neurochemicals.  Simultaneously, it is important to pay attention to the brain’s susceptibility towards distraction and multi-tasking during this time.  During this phase, Huberman suggests focusing on between one and four new habits and specifying timeframes for each habit to maintain flexibility within the schedule.  Activities which may fit well within this phase include detailed work, research, writing, and content reading.

The second phase occurs over the next 6 hours and is best suited to activities that aren’t associated with higher degrees of inertia and require less attention to complete.  Examples provided include creative pursuits and exercise requiring less focus.

The third phase is for sleep, beginning approximately 16 hours after waking up and continuing, ideally, for 8 hours.  Optimizing sleep hygiene habits are the priorities for this phase.

The key to breaking habits involves recognition and attention when we engage in those activities that we would like to stop.  It can also be helpful to be mindful of our physical, emotional, and psychological feelings and experience when we engage in these activities as they are frequently not as desirable as we may imagine, once we become aware of how they make us feel.  Once we identify that we have engaged in one of these activities, it is helpful to start a different activity that is more beneficial to our goals and vision.

James Clear provides several excellent strategies to assist in the development of new skills which can be combined with the activity phases that Huberman describes for optimal likelihood of creating the desired habits.  In his book, Atomic Habits:  An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, Clear details several strategies, including focusing on small, incremental changes rather than large changes; recognizing not only the current status of our habits but the progress we are making over time in developing new habits; stacking habits with currently performed activities; having a specific and detailed plan of how we will participate in the new habit; linking new habits to other activities that are already desirable; and attaching short-term gratification to the completion of new habits.  Many of these strategies are inherently understandable.  Perhaps one that is less evident, and also more effective, is stacking of habits.  This strategy involving pairing the new habit with an already, regularly performed activity so that we perform both activities at the same time.  This can be readily incorporated into our existing routines such that we are not actually adding time to an already busy daily schedule.

Both Huberman and Clear strongly recommend a process by which we regularly evaluate and assess our progress forming the desired new habits.  This information should be used as feedback to better understand which habits have been incorporated as well as which strategies have been successful.  It can also be helpful to engage the advice and feedback of a trusted individual to provide a more complete picture.

Use of these strategies for habit formation is crucial to the development of the skills and habits of The Healthcare Athlete.  Not only are these skills the foundation for high performance, they also allow for sustainability over the long-term.

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