Your habits can be your best friend or your worst enemy…
On September 1st, 2016, I started a habit of stepping on the scale every single morning, immediately after waking up. And entering my weight into a spreadsheet to track it.
This simple habit drastically altered my approach to food and fitness.
I managed to shed 36 pounds, most of it in excess fat.
I’ve recently been working on building my muscles more, so I’ve add 12 of those pounds back. But it’s lean mass.
And I’ve managed to do it without going crazy. I eat foods I enjoy, even pizza and ice cream. I’m just more mindful of my diet choices (especially portion control) and how my eating habits impact my health over the long run.
Plus once I started on that journey, I got serious about fitness again, and I’m working out as consistently as ever.
I feel really good about my health right now.
And it came from that one habit of stepping on the scale.
But I also still have some terrible habits. Not all of which I’m happy to admit here in this essay. As much as that habit of stepping on the scale has been a benefit in the last few years, my bad habits have been a hindrance.
And since my word of the year for 2019 is ownership, it’s time to take ownership of my habits. Especially the bad ones.
Luckily, there’s incredible research and help on habit change!
For years, I’ve been meaning to get around to Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Finally, I did!
In the book and his other work, Duhigg dug into the latest habit research.
There are some fascinating discoveries in recent habit research! And Duhigg condensed and clarified these discoveries for the likes of you and me.
First: habits are actions we take without thinking…
This is really important, I think.
The research shows that once we slip into habitual behavior, our brain activity decreases significantly.
I’m sure this has evolutionary adaptations. Our brains take a TON of fuel. And it’s good to conserve fuel for when we’ll really need it. So something repetitive, such as taking a shower or brushing teeth, shouldn’t take too much active processing. The less work our brain has to do for these regular activities, the better.
But that also means you can’t rely on your brain to jump in and stop you, once you’ve started the behavior you consider to be a bad habit. At this point, it’s too late. Your brain basically shuts down until it reaches the end of the behavior. And when your brain starts working again, you feel a rush of shame for once again failing to stop yourself from that bad habit.
This shows up in rodent research. When a rat presses a lever and gets food for the first time, their brain is active all the way through. But by the 100th time when it has become a habit, their brain shuts down when pressing the lever and eating the food.
If you know your brain is not working during habitual behavior, you need to look outside that behavior for how to change your habits.
Second: recognize the habit is NOT just the core behavior…
This is the really interesting bit.
Duhigg breaks down habits into a three-part loop: The Cue, The Routine, and The Reward.
But he also recognizes and interjects that between the Cue and the Routine, there’s one more critical element, The Craving.
Let’s go through each part.
The cue could be the TIME of day. It could be arriving at a certain PLACE. It could be the PEOPLE around you. It could be a specific ACTIVITY. Or it could be an EMOTION.
Once you experience your cue, you start to feel a craving. The craving is the desire for the reward.
Now this is important…
Before something becomes a habit, you get a little spike of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine when you experience a reward. That is, you eat a cookie, you feel good.
But if it becomes a habit to eat a cookie at your afternoon break, the dopamine spike MOVES in time. Instead of occurring after you eat the cookie, it occurs at the beginning of break time — your cue — when you know the reward is coming. With that dopamine spike comes a wave of good feeling and the craving for the cookie.
Then, your brain turns off while you go through the process of getting and eating the cookie — whether you really meant to have a cookie today or not. And the reward, while pleasurable, has lost some of its meaning as you don’t get the same dopamine spike as you used to simply by eating that cookie.
So back to the cycle. We had the Cue. The Routine is the habit itself, for good or bad. And the Reward is the satisfaction of the craving.
(Which, Duhigg notes, isn’t always quite what it seems on the surface. The cookie example is his, and it turns out cookies in the cafeteria were a good excuse for 15 minutes of non-work chat with coworkers. The cookie habit was a superficial symptom of his desire to have that time in the afternoon. Once he discovered that his craving and reward were not the cookie itself, the cookie was easy to replace.)
By breaking down your habits into these elements, you start to have more opportunities to control your behavior and change your habits.
But not so fast, buckaroo…
Third: recognize that habits are almost never quit, but can be replaced…
The myth of stopping a bad habit can be destructive. Because it’s very difficult to simply stop. Nature abhors a vacuum. Empty space gets filled again. So if you stop smoking and instead decide to twiddle your thumbs, you’ll very quickly find yourself smoking again.
On the other hand, if you replace one behavior for another, you’ll find it much easier to avoid the behavior you wanted to get away from.
The trick is to recognize when you’re getting the cue, BEFORE your brain shuts down. Because in that moment, you have the opportunity to change what routine you’ll follow. Replace the bad routine (habit) with a better one.
And when you can do this, it will significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll replace a bad habit with a good one.
Now: how to break the habit loop and change your bad habits…
Here’s the key. I know my bad habits. You know yours. The trick is to catch ourselves right as we feel ourselves slipping into the behavior. And in that moment, we have to think…
Then, physically grab a piece of paper (a post-it works) and write these five things:
I’m not even tell you that you can’t go on and do your bad habit after this. But for a moment, just stop and write these things down.
Then fill in…
TIME — What time is it?
PLACE — Where are you?
PEOPLE — Who else is around?
ACTIVITY — What did you just do?
EMOTION — What are you feeling?
One of these is your cue. One of these is what’s telling your brain, “It’s time to go do that thing I don’t really want to do but I can’t stop myself from doing.”
Now, if you haven’t been turned off to your bad habit by this little exercise, go do it.
But keep coming back to this. Every time you feel the urge to go do your bad habit. Stop and answer those five questions.
Do it a few times, and look for the similarities. At some point, you’ll realize, “Every time I feel stressed, I want to go do X.” Or, “Just after I put the kids to bed, I really want to Y.” Or whatever is the truth for you.
From here, consider what craving your bad habit is satisfying.
Maybe it’s stress relief. Maybe it’s a need to wind down. Maybe it’s a need for escape. Maybe it’s a desire to move your body. Maybe it’s a need for human connection.
What relief would you get it if you listened to the cue and did the bad habit?
Now recognize that when you felt that craving before, your bad habit was a routine you used to fulfill the craving.
Your job once you recognize the habit cue is to find a replacement routine…
This probably involves some experimentation.
You have an idea of what the craving might be. Maybe you can really break it down and say, “Yeah, when I start scrolling Facebook instead of doing my work, I get a little rush of dopamine because Facebook is built to do that to me.” Then, you need to find another way to get the rush of dopamine, that’s not as big of a distraction, and that could help you get back to work faster, maybe with some other side benefits.
I say even now you could brainstorm a few alternate routines for your bad habits.
One I’m playing with is doing quick exercise. Not a full exercise routine, but getting up and doing a few quick sets of something, just to move and get the good feeling I get from that.
Another could be a quick walk around the block.
Another could be getting up and drinking a glass of water.
Another could be grabbing a healthy snack.
Another could be writing a quick note to an important person in your life, such as a colleague or your partner. Even just writing a quick note to your spouse to let them know you’re thinking about them.
The idea is to find ANYTHING that can be a new routine, that is both a better habit and gives you a reward that gets you past that craving.
Duhigg also recommends trying routines that are drastically different. So, a similar routine to getting a cookie could be getting a cup of coffee. But if you still want the cookie afterward, that didn’t get rid of the craving. Maybe instead of getting a food item, you’d go for a walk. And if none of that works, try something else!
Finally, make it a plan…
Duhigg recommends planning for failure.
That is, part of what you must do in this process is to recognize that you will fail, probably quite a few times, and that your success will only happen when you learn to recover quickly.
And that will happen again and again. Until you speed up your recovery to a point where you’re catching yourself before failure.
To help with this, he recommends writing down your plan, including your cue, routine, and reward.
Fill in the blanks: “When [CUE], I will [NEW ROUTINE] because it provides me with [REWARD].”
Use your own language if that feels awkward. But don’t ignore the principle. Write down your plan and you’ll be more likely to remember and follow it when the time comes.
Habits don’t form easily. They’re not replaced easily, either.
But if you learn to recognize your cues and cravings, and experiment with alternate routines that reward your craving in a healthy way, you may find yourself replacing bad habits far more easily that you’d suspect.
It all starts with taking ownership of your habits. And for the ones you’d like to change, following the process above is an effective way to change them.
Note: Duhigg also published a great flow chart for changing habits. Print it out and keep it handy, where you’re most likely to experience your cues.
Oh and one more thing about the “stepping on the scale” habit I opened with. It’s interesting that I almost automatically created the habit loop, like this:
— CUE: Wake up
— ROUTINE: Go to our downstairs bathroom and after doing my business, step on the scale.
— REWARD: Feel good for having entered my weight into my tracking spreadsheet, regardless of whether it was up or down (I try really hard to make the reward about having tracked it, not the weight itself).
Now when I wake up I get a CRAVING to follow this process, and find myself a little uncomfortable until I’ve completed it.
If you simply want to create a new habit, consider simple cues, routines, and what the reward will be. Keep them as simple as possible, even breaking down bigger habits into smaller habits you can build on. And make them happen!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,