Did you know that it is estimated that 40-45% of everyday decisions are infact, habits. Most are harmless, but I would guess that all of us have at least one habit that feels like it controls us more than we control it.
Charles Duhigg, a reporter in the New York Times wrote an excellent book on the subject called ‘The Power Of Habit’. Here is a link to a 3-minute summary, or the more in-depth 15 minute TED Talk.
What he observed was that when something became a habit our brains almost switched off except at two points: the trigger (or cue) and the reward.
For years we have been focusing on the behavior, but it is at these two points that we have the power to change things. He called it the habit loop.
So why is it that we can’t just put a Post-It reminder on the fridge reminding us not to snack? Because our subconscious doesn’t distinguish between ‘do’ and ‘don’t’. It just knows where you are focusing, and is drawn toward it.
We have to trick the brain with cues and rewards that are premeditated and specific.
Three Tips To Change a Habit
- The first step is to identify the habit and notice what triggers it (eg: what time, how were you feeling, what are your surroundings). Taking an example from my own life I have the habit of pouring myself a glass of wine when the BBC World News comes on. When I look at the cue it is twofold: it reminds me of England where I was born (BBC). Secondly drinks time was when I connected with my family. Once you identify the trigger it is easier to change the habit.
- Anticipation is our friend! Once you isolate the main cue it is easier not to make a snap ‘hot-blooded’ decision. Taking another example if you bite your nails when you are anxious you can have a plan to do something different. For instance, you could hold something in your fingers, file or moisturize them,. Or you could quite literally sit on your hands for a moment.
- Change the reward to something that answers the underlying driver for the habit. This is trickier. Charles Duhigg routinely ate a huge cookie every afternoon at the cafeteria, and this led to unwanted weight gain. When he observed his behavior, he noticed it was always around the same time of day (3:30pm). He then figured out it was driven by his desire to connect and gossip. He could then anticipate the cue and the reward. In identifying those he was able to break the habit by getting up from his desk at 3:30pm, going to see a friend, and having a good gossip.