Habits allow us to put certain of our actions on autopilot so we can focus on other things like planning, calculate, thinking… or just daydreaming. But they are double-edged swords, aren’t they?! I mean what about procrastination, smoking, scrolling… These are things that we find ourselves doing by pure boredom and we sometime think we could do something else instead. But breaking bad habits is hard!
Do you remember how overwhelming this whole process was?! How you had to make each decision and memorize every moment or every action at the same time?! That really sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it?! And that’s only how you felt. Imagine the resources that your brain has to mobilize in these situations…
The main characteristic of habits is that they are automated decisions. But when decisions are automated, there are no decisions at all anymore, only memorized patterns. Habits, in other words. And once the potential that gets usually engaged in decision making has been freed, it can be reassigned to more meaningful tasks… Then you can do more things, learn more! Create more!
Psychologist Wendy Wood from University of Southern California has demonstrated that 40 to 45% of our daily activities are actually habits. Think about walking and all the things that you can do while walking: texting… have a business discussion over the phone, review your schedule for the day or listen to a podcast… These would not be possible if you had to focus and make a decision about how to do every step you make. Take these routines that we’ve learnt in the early days of our lives and have been automated. And how much tasks we are able to operate with all that mental capacity left!
“Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure.“Charles Duhigg, « The Power of Habits »
The habit loop
It order to understand how habits shape our lives, it is important to know about the chemistry of it. How habits are triggered, formed and performed into our brains. That is called the habit loop. It is the key to breaking bad habits and building successful ones.
Each habit is composed of three elements: the cue (or trigger), the routine (the act of performing the habit itself) and the reward.
The cue is what triggers the habit, neurologically. On formed habits, the cue is the switch of activity on which the brain goes from decision making to routine.
Now, here is the tricky part: what is a cue ? It can be a variety of things such a certain environment, a time of the day, a certain emotional state… Even another habit that you are performing or other people’s behavior!
In itself, a cue is a part of a pattern that the brain recognizes in a recurrent context. That coffee that you get every morning around 10:30. That awkward feeling when you take the road to work on an early Sunday morning while you were supposed to do a simple milk run… Are these unforeseen events and spontaneous decisions, or are they simple routines that we perform on automatic mode? Admittedly, recognizing the cues in our neurological pathways is the hardest but that’s a fundamental part of the process of breaking bad habits.
The routine is the performance of the habit itself. Going on a bike ride. Grab your helmet and your bike gloves. Fill up a water bottle… etc. Preparing breakfast: put the kettle on, toast some bread… etc.
The reward is what we aim to enjoy after we have performed a habit. Chatting with some colleagues while making our morning coffee at the office. Smelling a nice fresh odour after some cleaning at home. Feeling invigorated after some exercice…
Using a smartphones would be a good example here. Why do we check our emails, social media threads so often?! Are we craving so much about information and updates?! No, it’s about our brain craving for dopamine. Every time that you see a funny video on social media, or every invitation for an interview that you receive in your emails, your brain is reacting positively by producing this neurotransmitter which convey the feeling of happiness.
If you’re on a path to breaking bad habits like this one, find a way to allow your brain to produce dopamine in another way, and you will find yourself checking your phone less frequently! Obviously, humans didn’t wait smartphones to feel happy, so there are certainly alternatives existing out there, like painting, photography, sports, gardening, music…
You need a goal in order to form and perform a habit in a sustainable way. In other words, you need to see the point of performing the habit. Say you are thinking about getting more exercise. If you want to turn that into a habit that you perform steadily, you need to set up a goal. For this particular example it would be loosing weight or get back in shape. The goal gives you a purpose into performing your habit.
When the goal comes first, you see it in a clearer way. You need to achieve a goal and then the habit gets set as a method. Say you want to increase your net worth: you have to save money. Increasing your net worth is the goal. Saving money is the method (or the habit) to reach that goal.
As important as cues are, repetition is probably the other key aspect of habits. In order for the brain to switch to automatic behavior, you need to set some patterns.
A pattern is a series of action that gets repeated. To be clearer, a habit doesn’t form on one instance, there has to be several instances of the same action or series of actions (routine) for a neural pathway to build.
Neuroscientists agree to say that breaking bad habits or build new ones usually takes 60 days. To be a bit more precise, it takes around 20 instances for that neural pathway (neurological term for habit) to start to build. Passed the 40 instances mark, the habit has been set and you will perform it without even having to think about it. In other words, at this stage, there is no decision making involved at all and you’re on cruise control for that particular routine. Finally over the 66 instances, the neural pathways gets reinforced and so does the habit itself.
The business of habits
One thing to be aware of is that, as with almost everything in life, habits can be a great marketing tool for companies to sell products to their consumers. By studying consumers behavior, they can figure out patterns and habits as to why we buy a certain product or a certain combinaison of products, or why we use them in a certain order.
Consumer habits can make a product or break it, commercially. And brands are aware of that. Tech companies will nowadays observe how we browse their websites or mobile app in order to improve our experience as users. Retailers study how we browse shelves and aisles. What we buy and how we buy it (in which order, quantity, time of the purchase…). Brands themselves will gather consumers within test panels to confront them with their products in development to observe how consumers engage with the product.
Proctor & Gamble has applied this and made great advantage of it updating their product Febreze. At first, they marketed it as a scent-free odour eliminator. But then, they realized that the smelliest homes aren’t necessarily the one craving for fresher air. Therefore the product wouldn’t sell! Then the company reformulated its product by including a range of scents to it. They observed that people sought for fresher when their interior looked newer! And then Febreze begun being included in people’s cleaning routines, although nobody would ask for it…
Breaking bad habits with new routines
In his book The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg points out that we operate our habits like lacing our shoes or brushing our teeth the same way over and over again, as long as we perform them in the same environment.
However we will notice that we tend to do things differently after some vacation away form home. That’s because the environment has changed. Therefore some cues have been changed and the routine has been broken. It needs to be reset! That’s partly why going on vacation feels so relaxing: patterns are broken but then once we’re back home again these get reset again. Therefore, vacations are a key moment in breaking bad habits. Cues and rewards are gone.
“ If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation … because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.“Charles Duhigg, « The Power of Habits »Buy “The Power of habits” on Amazon
Knowing the anatomy of a habit (good or bad) is essential to cultivate good ones and eradicates bad ones. Let’s take that candy or sweet beverage that we get everyday after lunch as an exemple. The cue here is that we’ve eaten our lunch and the reward that we’re looking is a sweet note to end up our meal and get back to work for the afternoon. With just that, we know the why and the when. We just have to find a substitute that is more healthy (what about some fruits?!), or maybe we could instaure another routine instead (what about some walking around the block?!)
When working at breaking our bad habits, we need to be able to set or recognize cues which could easily trigger the routine. Also, sometimes it’s necessary to set some goal. Let’s say you want to save $5000. The goal alone can feel a bit overwhelming. Instead, it would feel more achievable to set a series of 10 goals of $500! Some call this baby steps, other will talk about the « 1% a day » rule… The important here is to break a big goal into smaller goals or milestones in order to be able to measure success.
Habits allow us to achieve what we aim for in life by automating certain aspects of it. In order to achieve that, it’s important to identify the cues that trigger these behaviors of ours and the reward we retrieve for them, in order to find alternatives and forge new routines after breaking bad habits. Then, once we have a base of good and positive habits, it’s easier to build more successful habits upon them.
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