Oct 08

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

It has been shown that almost half of your day’s activities are done by habit. Meaning you do them without even thinking. Many of these habits have a domino effect on how your day plays out. In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg shows how habits can be changed, and in turn, alter your entire life for the better!

Habits are formed in the brain, and can be established quickly. Structurally, they can be broken down into three parts; cue, routine, and reward. Duhigg calls it the habit loop. The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic or habit mode. The routine can be physical, mental, or emotional and takes place next. It’s what you do. Finally comes the reward, which the brain uses to determine if the loop is worthy of remembering or continuing again. The more often the habit loop is performed, the stronger it becomes and easier it becomes for your brain to make happen. Or in other words, the less you even have to think about it for it to take place. This of course could be a good thing or a bad thing!

chocolate-chip-cookiesIn order to change or stop a bad habit, one must determine all three parts of the habit loop that coincide with the action one wants to stop. The author uses the example of his eating a cookie each day and gaining weight. He first determined what triggered the event, then what action he took, and finally what the reward was for his eating the cookie. He found that he began to get antsy at work around 10 o’clock. He needed a mental break. This was his triggering cue. Then he would get up from his desk and go to the cafeteria, purchase a cookie, visit with coworkers, and then return to his desk. These were his actions. His reward was that he could now return to work refreshed and ready to continue. He then had to determine whether he could use different actions to accomplish the same reward or feeling of re-freshness that would allow him to be ready to work again. He first experimented with different food, and then not even food but simply by visiting with coworkers at their desks. Both of these experiments proved to work, showing him that really all that he needed for his reward was to get up and get away from his desk for 10 minutes or so. He could now change this habit, stop eating cookies, and stop gaining weight. When at 10 o’clock he began to get antsy, he would recognize this triggering cue, get up away from his desk have an apple or not, talk to a coworker for a few minutes and then return to his desk.

This same formula can be used on any of our wonderful bad habits. On the flipside, recognizing and understanding a habit loop can also help us create positive changes in our lives. We can create our own good habits! In creating a good habit we must create our own triggering cue that will lead us into the action we want to take place. We must also then make sure there is a reward in place that will solidify in our brain that this is an action worth repeating. An example for someone trying to go for more walks or runs could play out like this. They could place their walking/running shoes in an area in the house where they would see them right away when they came home from work. The sight of the shoes could be the trigger/reminder that they need to walk or run him off before doing anything else. Then the action could take place and the reward would follow. For some, the reward is simply intrinsic and the good feeling from the endorphins created by the exercise.  For others, they may need an extrinsic reward . That of course must be figured out individually, but once established this process becomes easier and easier to be repeated, creating a good habit!

The bonus of all of this is that by adding a good habit or subtracting a bad habit from your daily regimen, a domino effect takes place on the rest of your actions. Two examples discussed in Duhigg’s book were adding the habit of exercise, and also the habit of making one’s bed in the morning. “According to research, when people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other unrelated patterns in their lives.  Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.”

Likewise, making one’s bed every morning has also shown to be a keystone habit resulting in a positive improvement elsewhere in lives. It is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget!

Our brains like habits. They like to find similar patterns to help navigate us through our days as efficiently as possible. The problem is that patterns that engage in negative actions are just as easily made habitual to those that are positive. Understanding how to break a habit down into its three-part “loop” can help us not only change the bad ones, but introduce good habits into our life.