Do you want to change your life? If so, you need to first change your habits!
We are creatures of habit. When you wake up in the morning, you probably follow a certain routine… Checking your cell phone, checking your e-mail, drinking a glass of water, getting some coffee, etc. Throughout the day you can count on other habits to occur, even if you are not fully aware of them. We think that we’re making well considered decisions… but we are not. Most things that occur throughout the day happen automatically without much thought at all. Habits run your life. If you want to change your life, change your habits. Fortunately, once you understand how habits work, you can change them with greater success. That’s what this article is about – what habits are, why and how they form, and how to change them.
What are habits?
Why do we have habitual tendencies? Our brains require a ton of energy (20% of entire body’s haul) and they have become very good at conserving energy and becoming more efficient. The brain isn’t going to waste energy on something you do all the time. The cerebrum controls complex functions, and this is the part of the brain that is utilized when we first learn something (a new task for example). When actions are performed repeatedly, they aren’t controlled by the cerebrum anymore because that’s inefficient. They are performed in another part of the brain – the basal ganglia. These actions have become habits and are performed with very little mental activity. When an activity makes it to the basal ganglia, it becomes a reaction instead of something you think about. Once an action is in the basal ganglia, it is difficult to dislodge. That’s why it’s hard to kick a bad habit.
Sometimes we decide we are going to make a change in our lifestyle and we do make well thought out decisions, but they have trouble sticking because they are not habits. When you want to make a real change in your life, you have to make that behavior a habit. When you incorporate a positive behavior/change into a habit loop, the change will be much easier. So, how can you get there? First, you must understand the habit loop itself.
There are three components to the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward.
The cue is a trigger. Example – you drive by a certain restaurant. This cue, aka trigger, puts your brain into autopilot. You follow a routine (eating at the restaurant), in order to get the reward (tasty food that you love). The cues can be feelings or thoughts, or they can be external, like the time of the day or a picture.
The routine is the next part of the habit loop. This is the behavior that you take once you have been triggered. This is the behavior that will lead to a reward. This can be an emotional (getting nervous before a test), cognitive, or physical (eating at that restaurant).
The reward is why we do the particular habit loop. It can be physical (chocolate, sugar, etc.), emotional (I feel happy), or cognitive (I learned something new – cool!). If the activity is something worth doing, we will remember it and it becomes a habit.
For an oversimplified habit loop, think of a dog (they are creatures of habit too). When I open a package and my dog recognizes the sound as a bag of treats (cue), he runs over to the kitchen and sits down (routine), in order to get his reward (snack).
Another good example is coffee. Some people wake up in the morning (that’s their cue), then drink their coffee (routine), and then get their reward (caffeine – feel awake). See if you can identify any habit loops you have. What’s your cue?
Creating new habits
The cue, routine, reward is not quite enough to make a habit stick though. There needs to be something else – a craving. When we start anticipating the reward, that’s when the action will become a true habit. It will become automatic once the cue elicits a craving. Then you will be willing to do the routine in order to get the reward. When you wake up (cue) and instantly crave coffee, you will be in that habit loop every morning. Think of some of your habit loops for eating, cleaning, etc. Think about your pets. Do they have certain habits they follow?
My dog has a habit of peeing outside (which is great). He wasn’t always that way though. He used to pee all over the walls! I had to instill the habit of peeing outside. How did I do it? Following the habit loop! When I brought him outside (cue), he peed (routine), and I gave him a treat (reward). This didn’t work after one time. I had to do it over and over again until he knew that when we went outside (cue), he might get a treat for peeing. Once it’s a habit, you can take away the treat and the dog will keep peeing outside. I still give him treats occasionally to reinforce the behavior… but that’s a basic example of the habit loop at work.
So, do you want to instill some new habits? The best way to do it is by tying it to an existing thing you do. For example, you want to start drinking water every morning when you wake up. Make your cue simply waking up. The routine is to drink the water. The reward is to feel good and be hydrated. I do this every morning completely on autopilot. I wake up and drink 2 glasses of water without even thinking about it. All you are doing is anchoring a new routine to an existing cue. Now this is an extremely simple example, but it works for any other habit. Tying your new habit to an existing thing you do will make it much, much easier because you’re building it into your existing daily routine. If you want to exercise daily, make it a habit to workout when you wake up in the morning or when you get home from work. It will require willpower at first, but if you keep doing it consistently, it will just become a habit and you won’t even have to think about doing it.
Changing old habits
Habits can be beneficial, but they can also be detrimental. Think of some of your good habits. Now, think of some of your bad habits. Think of the cue, the routine, and then the reward. In order to change the bad habits, you have to replace the routine. Keep the same cue and reward, but simply replace the routine. This is the most effective way to change a habit. This is why many smokers quit successfully by chewing Nicorette gum. The cue is the same, but instead of smoking a cigarette (routine), they chew gum as the new routine. The reward is still the same – nicotine. You are simply inserting a new routine into an existing habit loop.
This can still be difficult which is why you need one more element in order to increase your chances for success. You need to believe that change is possible. You must believe that you can make the change and that it will be beneficial to your future self.
Consider using groups to help share experiences as well as make public commitments. For example, you’re going to make a new habit of going to the gym. Your cue can be as simple as leaving work. The routine is exercising, and the reward is releasing those feel good endorphins throughout your body making you feel good and healthy. Note: we know the long term benefits of exercising, and we can set a goal like exercising so that we look good in a bathing suit, but those are hard to stick to because of lack of immediate results. Try and use a short term immediate reward as well as a long term reward. So, how can you make this habit loop even more powerful? Believe that you can do it and also have a gym partner to hold you accountable and share experiences with.
Keystone habits are very interesting. When you change one of these habits, it has ripple effects across all other activities of your life. Take exercising for example. When you make a habit to exercise, you start changing your eating and sleeping habits without even thinking about it. Many studies have shown that changing this one keystone habit will help you to eat healthier, perform better at work, etc. Identify the keystone habit within yourself. Once it is realized, changing one habit can have huge impacts to other patterns.
Why are keystone habits so powerful? They are what some call small wins. When you have one small win, you build momentum and see that change is possible. A series of small wins can get you pumped and moving in the right direction, willing to take on other challenges that you didn’t think you could do before.
One habit of interest is journaling. Studies show that keeping track of all the food you eat in a day can have positive impacts. When you track what you eat, you do not eat quite as bad. The same can be said for tracking your spending. I track my food intake. I write down everything I eat and it does make a difference in what I decide to put into my body. It is difficult at first, but just stick with it.
If you really want to change your habits or create new ones, you will have to take a good hard look at yourself. Analyze your daily actions. Pay attention to your daily routines – this is where journaling can help. Bringing awareness to you actions can be daunting, but it’s worth the effort.
For example, someone may want to cut back on drinking. They can ask themselves, why do I drink? Their response may be, I go to the bar to drink when I’m stressed. Stress is the cue and going to the bar is the routine. What’s the reward? Feeling relaxed and talking to friends. Ok, so how do we tackle this? The cue and reward will be kept the same. What changes is the routine. Instead of going to the bar when you’re stressed, find another way to get the reward. Meet your friends somewhere else to hang out and talk. This is the secret behind AA meetings. The cue is different for each individual who drinks, but the routine is going to a group meeting to discuss their experiences instead of drinking. The reward will be socialization, group support, etc.
Investigating habit loops will force you to do some self-analyzing, which is a good thing. Analyze why you do things. Question your actions. Find out which habits are serving you and which ones you need to change. Come up with a list of habits you want to change and make a plan. Have a plan for potential obstacles. Let’s say you are trying to stop eating junk food so you can lose a couple pounds for the summer. The very next day (as is usually the case), you walk into work and see a nice, tasty dessert. Identify your weaknesses and anticipate these challenges. Come up with a plan of how you will handle such cases. Instead of eating a tasty dessert, have a healthy and tasty snack in your desk ready to go. Or opt to go for a walk instead. Eventually it won’t take much to resist these treats that are sabotaging your plans for weight loss, etc. Have a plan to handle pain, stress, and temptation ahead of time. When you constantly use these alternative plans, they become automatic habits.
Now that you understand how habits work, you have the knowledge to change them!
Some additional tips:
Start small and make it easy! Get some small wins to help you build momentum. Small wins will help you believe that change is possible. Have a goal to workout? Just start with 10 minutes. You don’t have to start with an hour – start small.
Use your willpower to install habits. More on willpower here.
Have a strong reason for why you are wanting to start or change a habit. A strong why will help you push through the tough times.
Embrace the process of starting a new habit. The first 20 days will be a little rough, but stick with it and you won’t be able to quit that new habit after 20+ days. Get through the suck!
For additional reading, I suggest The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg