Habit Forming

For the past few months I’ve been reading and doing research about habits and making changes at the individual, family and work levels. This has included reading The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. This is a great book for exploring how habits form, the power of those habits in our lives and ways of changing habits.

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One of the main ideas that Duhigg explores is the Habit Loop. In this loop, there is a cue that triggers a routine that eventually leads to a reward.

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop is found all around us. Each of us has particular habits that we aren’t even cognizant of but which are important for us to be able to carry out all the activities in our day. From breakfast to our nightly routines, our habits shape our days as we go about doing our work and taking part in different activities.

 “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

Most of these habits are necessary since it allows our brain to be able to focus on other necessary activities in our lives.

 “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverse focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically. … Habits never disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation.” – Ann Graybiel – scientist at MIT

However, once a habit is in place, it can become difficult to change it. This is where knowing how the Habit Loop works is important.

“The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” – Ann Graybiel.

Not all habits are the same either. As Duhigg explains, there are certain habits that have a greater affect on what we do.

 Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

These “keystone habits” can be the one’s that, once they begin to change, have a ripple effect on other areas of one’s life. My own experience quitting smoking was like this. I smoked for many years and tried to quit at different times. It wasn’t until I was able to determine the triggers and cues that influenced my habit (which I really didn’t know that I was doing this) that I was able to finally quit for good. The biggest change I made was adding exercise to each week day, beginning in the morning. Because I was getting up to exercise, I began to change my sleeping habits. This change in sleeping habits had an effect on my planning habits as I began to do plan each day the night before so I knew what was happening the next day which helped me to worry less about the next day. I have now been tobacco free for over two years without a relapse. But, in doing so, I have also reshaped other areas of my life. Today, I’m applying this same strategy in other areas of my life, trying to determine the habits necessary to make changes to my work and my mental health.

Do You Have A Craving?

According to Duhigg, a key to a new habit is developing a ‘craving’ for what I want to change.

Craving are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.

For me, this has meant changing the way I schedule my day and the work that I am doing. So, instead of saying that I’ll write a blog post Friday, I plan out through the week what I will do to ensure that the post is published Friday morning. If I decide to do two posts, it will require a change in the plan. But how does one create a ‘craving’ for writing a blog post? Well, part of the craving is the sense of accomplishment that happens when you press publish. It’s a different type of ‘craving’ than what we usually associate with the idea of cravings.

Yet, this craving becomes just as powerful. Six out of seven days I plan for exercise in some way. Each day that I exercise, I reward myself usually with a shake or smoothie after the workout. I also apply this to the work that I do. If I get all the work I planned for the day finished, I have a reward – say 20 minutes of gaming in the evening which I then use to spend time with my kids playing. I try to make these rewards specific, things I really like to do but may not have time to do on a regular basis.

How do you identify habits you wish to change?

What are some habits you have been able to change or replace?

How did you manage the changes?

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