I’m gonna make a change,― Michael Jackson, The Man In The Mirror
For once in my life.
It’s gonna feel real good,
Gonna make a difference,
Gonna make it right…
It’s five o’clock on a Monday evening.
As you leave the office to pick up your kids, you remember that you forgot to shop for groceries on Sunday. Darn it, you are too tired to cook. You decide to pick up fast food on the way.
You missed the scheduled workout with your buddy at lunchtime. You got distracted by emails and forgot all about the Zumba class at your company gym. As six o’clock rolls around your energy is waning. A quick fix of Coke couldn’t hurt, right? Except, the combination of fast food and coke keeps you (and your digestive system) up all night.
You wake up late on Tuesday morning. There goes your planned hour of writing and meditation! You scramble into the office exhausted. Do you really need me to tell you how your Tuesday’s gonna go?
This is probably not your first time bailing on a workout or ordering fast food. In fact, your buddy has had it with your lack of commitment; she is ready to quit. She is the only thing motivating you in the first place. Your bathroom scale has become your worst nightmare, yet you can’t seem to change your habits to save your life.
True, one fast food dinner is not going to kill you. You are not that much worse off because you cheated on your diet
How do you change a habit? How do you unlearn unhealthy habits cultivated over a lifetime?
In today’s post I will cover a framework for understanding habits, identifying the habitual patterns in your life and rewiring them.
If you are like me, you may have tried to force yourself to adopt your new habit. After all, studies indicate that it takes just 3 consecutive weeks to break an old habit. Just keep plugging away at a new routine even if you are not enthusiastic and even as the returns diminish.
Blindly adopting a new practice alone won’t make the habit stick. As Charles Duhigg, explains in his bestselling book “The Power Of Habit” you must begin by understanding how habits work.
Duhigg provides compelling stories – how Alcoholics Anonymous changes people’s lives; how a Colts coach led his team to an unprecedented Super Bowl victory in 2006; how a CEO change his company culture by adopting a keystone habit – to illustrate that key to changing habits is to study how habits operate.
Your current reality is not your destiny. You can get fit, become a prolific writer and learn to think positively even if you have been struggling with habits your entire life.
The Habit Loop
Habits are curious things. We may consider them to be effective mechanisms for increasing our productivity or training ourselves to achieve challenging goals, but in reality, they are an evolutionary process. They emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.
Throughout evolution, the human brain has sought to conserve mental energy which has led to a denser and more compact brain.
Since our brain performs complex functions such as receiving knowledge, storing it, and retrieving it for decision making, it consumes more energy than any other organ in our body.
The brain conserves effort through a process known as chunking. It converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine – think of it as modules created by your brain’s own programming language.
There are thousands of behavioral chunks we use in our daily lives – making a cup of coffee, brushing our teeth, driving a car, even how we perceive and respond to emotions.
Anytime the brain wants to form a new habit, it relies on a process to create a behavioral chunk.
The process is a loop consisting of three steps.
- A trigger (cue) instructs your brain to switch to automatic mode.
- Your brain then accesses a known routine – physical or mental – to take the required action.
- At the end of the routine comes the reward, usually in the form of a hormone release which cements the loop in your memory.
Let’s consider the behavior of checking email.
- Cue – Your computer chimes notifying you that there are is a new message
- Routine – The anticipation (or dread) of an unread email builds until you open your inbox
- Reward – Once you open your email – which was probably an unnecessary FYI message about a team get together – and respond, you feel relieved and also a sense of having accomplished something.
Every habit displays these same three steps. Especially strong habits, such as addictions, are ingrained by cravings.
When we are caught in these cravings, it is hard for us to break out of the habit loop. In a later post, we will discuss the two modes of decision making, System 1 and System 2 to fully explore the underlying cognitive processes.
For now, it’s enough to know that, habits are hard to break because switching from automatic mode to decision-making mode, to make a conscious choice – to not drink, to not smoke or to not gorge ourselves on junk food – is cognitively expensive.
We can learn to break
To do so, we need to identify the trigger, the craving that’s the root cause for the behavior.
Identify the trigger
Every habit has a trigger or cue. We human beings are but sophisticated mammals. We tend to overlook cues as a valuable source of information for our habits.
On that Monday evening when you are headed towards the fast food restaurant what is really happening in your brain?
When you looked at your watch and saw that it was close to dinner time, you might have recalled how your children get cranky when they are hungry. You probably got stressed when you remembered how they tend to bicker with each other when they are cranky. Rather than avoid a scene at home you decide to go armed with fast food.
Triggers can be found everywhere, in words, visual cues,
This is why many companies use many marketing tactics to grab your attention. They lure you in with one trigger (fast service and hot food) and ensure your loyalty through others (salty fries that satisfy your taste buds).
Switch the routine
If you are failing to build a new habit, it is probably because you haven’t developed a consistent routine. Knowing in advance the ritual you plan to follow, will prepare you to disregard distractions. After all, companies are not going to stop marketing their products. Fast food will always be around. But if you anticipate the trigger and create a routine to support your good habit, you are more likely to follow through.
One way to change the fast food habit loop would be to switch your routine. Carry some healthy “to-go” snacks such as fruit, yogurt, hummus/cheese, and crackers, or even light popcorn. When you are not stressed, you are in a better frame of mind to fix a healthy dinner when you get home.
It is easier to stick to a new habit when you anticipate the cues and plan a routine. You might want to schedule weekly grocery shopping trips on your calendar instead of leaving it up to chance. You might also consider enrolling in a meal planning or meal delivery service that caters to your family’s dietary preferences.
What if you have a routine, yet you can’t change a habit?
Your routine might not be working for you because it may be too restrictive or too open-ended. Or you might have adopted someone else’s routine and it hasn’t been customized to suit your needs.
A routine is dependent on a number of factors including the physical and social environment. Map out your routine for your home, office or when you are on the road. What essential components do
We will cover the topic of routines in another blog post.
How I changed a habit
Here is a habit that most wannabe writers struggle with: developing a consistent writing habit. After all, when you want to be a writer, it’s only logical that you would want to write, right?
The writing habit is hard to form for various reasons, writer’s block is a reality and it is hard to find time to write when you won’t be distracted by work or home responsibilities. The reason I find it a challenge is because of my routine (or so I have realized).
I have tried a number of routines to write daily. I have used a third party website such as 750words. I have tried various online editors. I have tested various different venues and tried different genres of music. Through all these changes, my writing routine never varied. I would start typing and keep going until the end.
Through trial and error, I figured out that my natural writing style is different. I enjoy writing in spurts. I like to capture a few sentences about an idea. Once I have expanded upon the first few sentences, rather than write an entire article from beginning to end, I do it in a roundabout fashion.
I collect quotes, links, articles related to the subject. I might abandon writing to create a visual – this may be a drawing or a mind map. This free flowing routine allows me to create several threads related to my topic. Then, all it takes is to weave those threads into a cohesive post.
When you want to change a habit, test drive several routines. See which one works for you.
Reap the reward
Are you a coffee drinker? Why do you have a cup of coffee every morning?
What about your preference to work out with a friend rather than alone?
We repeat routines because we crave the reward waiting for us at the end. A practice that might have begun on a whim becomes a habit because we eagerly anticipate the reward that it provides.
We drink coffee not because we enjoy the slightly bitter taste, but because coffee smells good and provides comfort, it becomes part of our morning ritual.
We work out with a friend because we feel supported in our fitness journey, we enjoy sharing the post-workout bliss with our buddy.
Studies show that people cultivate exercise habits to lose weight, but many continue their habit because it feels good. What starts out as a forced routine becomes an enduring habit that brings a sense of accomplishment and self-reward.
When we want to change a habit, not only should we attempt to change the cue or the routine, but we should also introduce a reward at the end of the process.
To be more precise, you need a reward that is proportional to the task involved. The reward can’t be too challenging, or you might give up on trying to change the habit. The reward can’t be too easy, or you won’t be motivated enough to change.
When I started writing consistently, I would reward myself with a brief break to enjoy a chapter or two of a new book. As an avid reader, this was the perfect reward for a job well done. It also gave me ideas for new posts. If I start reading for hours at a time, it creeps into my writing and the value of the reward diminishes.
Ultimately, we should rely on intrinsic motivation to change our habits. When we focus on internal rewards we are training ourselves to not depend on any external rewards.
Next week when five o’clock rolls around on any evening, you will be better prepared. You will have squeezed in a workout because you avoided getting distracted by email. You will have shopped for healthy food so that you won’t be tempted to go through the fast food drive-thru. With the boost of energy from your afternoon workout and healthy dinner, you will wake up refreshed on Tuesday morning and crank out an awesome 2000-word article.
Congratulations, you have changed your habit.
Changing habits can be hard. But Duhigg’s framework offers hope and guidance. By being aware of the triggers in our environment, our routines and the rewards we seek, we can gain greater self-control. We can rewire our brains to build new habits.
We can begin to appreciate the (
we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can… the acquisition of a new habit, we must take care to launch ourselves with— William James, Habit
asstrong and decided an initiative as possible… Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life.
What have you learned about habits? How will you implement the framework that Duhigg recommends? What resources or support do you have to maintain your new habits?
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