HOW TO CHANGE YOUR HABITS
Why can’t we stop doing things that we know are bad for us? And how can we start doing all those things we know would benefit us? These are the questions addressed in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
A reporter for The New York Times, Duhigg has taken the latest research on habits and how our brains work and created concepts that help us understand not only how we form habits, but how to break them.
“In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago,” Duhigg says.
Habits—from brushing our teeth to driving a certain way to work—are like loops in our brains, says Duhigg. Once we understand these loops, we can decide if we want to change them and how. Here are the three parts of the habit loop:
- Cue – This is the trigger that starts the habit. Think of it like a gun that goes off at the beginning of a footrace. The gun fires, and the racers all know automatically to start running. They don’t have to stand around and think about it, ask each other what to do next, or look to their coaches for approval. They just take off running. When we have a habit, the cue to begin that habit is similar in that we don’t consider whether or not taking the next action is right or wrong, smart or not so smart, healthy or unhealthy, or sane or crazy—we just take that next action automatically regardless of what our rational minds might say if given the chance to comment. For some of us, this might be pulling out a pack of cigarettes after a meal, tapping a stack of papers on a copier after they’re printed (already in a neat stack), or reaching your hand for the snooze button instead of your running shoes. Your brain has become accustomed to responding in a certain way to a signal or event, so it does so without asking your permission.
- Routine – Duhigg says the heart of the habit consists of a routine that impacts every part of you: your mental, emotional and physical nature. Hitting the snooze button is about more than just an extra few minutes of physical rest. It’s also about avoiding a negative emotion associated with your job, and mentally wanting to hide from the tasks you have ahead of you that day. This is part of why habits are so seemingly hard to break: They are about more than just surface reward.
- Reward – In fact, the reward of our habit is often hidden from us. It might seem like smoking a cigarette after a meal is calming, but in reality, it feeds a chemical reaction in the brain that is based on raising your heart rate and blood pressure during a physical addiction. You might think that eating that donut in the break room even when you say you want to lose weight is just about having a bad day and needing a treat, but it might also be about the fact that once you cheat on that diet, you let yourself eat whatever you want later in the day. The reward is what teaches your brain that this habit is worth repeating over and over and over.
So why can’t we stop?
“The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerge,” Duhigg says. That means every time we hear the alarm go off, our brain immediately senses the reward, which includes more rest, fewer negative feelings, and a delay in unpleasant mental tasks. Why wouldn’t it force you to lift your arm and slam that snooze button again and again?
To break this habit loop, Duhigg introduces what he calls the Golden Rule of Habit. He advises us to create a new rule that will change how we respond to a certain cue while keeping the reward.
- First, figure out what the cue is for the habit you want to break. Let’s use the alarm going off in the morning before you head to that job you want to quit. If that’s the cue, the next step is to create a rule to replace not only your arm flinging over to hit the snooze button, but also the actions that follow in the habit loop, such as rolling over, putting the pillow over your head, sighing loudly, letting yourself pretend it isn’t time to get up, hitting snooze again, etc.
- Second, create a rule to replace it. This might be turning the alarm off and getting out of bed, making yourself a special smoothie or coffee drink, sitting outside on the porch to take in the sunrise, doing some breathing exercises, or taking a walk.
- Third, make sure you get the same or similar reward. If you get out of bed and use that 18 minutes to actually enjoy your morning, you’ll still avoid having to go into work just yet, you’ll feel rested and ready for your day, and you might even be more prepared to face those mental tasks you usually dread.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but Duhigg says it is possible—as long as you believe it is possible. Your faith in your ability to change your habits is crucial, he says. If you can’t muster the belief on your own, try finding a support group or a buddy to help cheer you on when you doubt your ability to change.
It might be two steps forward and one back, but eventually you can alter your habits to support the kind of person you truly want to become on a daily basis. And that’s a habit worth forming. By Amy Anderson