Break the routine
Remember, basal ganglia operates on patterns recognition. Change one key in the pattern and everything breaks. In his book The Power of Habits, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg points out studies that have established 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’ll notice that we tend to do things differently, sometimes struggle at doing so after some vacation away, for example. That’s because the environment has changed, so some cues have been changed, therefore the routine has been broken, somehow. And 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 to change 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 »
Knowing the anatomy of a habit (good or bad) is essential. Being able to identify what triggers it and figuring out why we’re performing it helps us to draw the battle plan to eradicate it and substitute another routine in place that is more beneficial for ourselves. 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?!)
To forge bigger or more complex and newer 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 or set a series of goals. 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 break a big goal into smaller gold or milestones or order to be able to measure success.
Great, it seems that we’re on the right path. We’ve set one goal and start working toward achieving it. But soon, after we performed that habit a couple of time, we starting to feel demotivated. In order to restore that motivation, we need some reward! We humans do things with a purpose, some value we can withdraw. We grow food to be able to eat any time and anything we want fewer hassle; we go to school to get a job. Without purpose, we loose focus! Our relationship to habits obeys to the same precepts. Let get back to our savings example and let’s say that for every 500 dollars, we authorize ourselves to spend $20 or $30 on some luxury item: like movie ticket or a meal at the restaurant. Now we have a tangible purpose to it: we have a long term goal (the $5000) and a short term goal (the $30 we will be able to spend right away)! And there is our reason to commit!
After a few weeks, it seems that we have some healthy habit here. Maybe we could build up on this. What about starting to invest a bit of these savings, say $50 for $500? Even if it means postponing a bit the deadline for that $5000 capital.
As Marco Badwal states in his TEDX talks (see above), « we human are creatures of habits ». They enable us to achieve what we aim for in life by automating certain aspects of it. And knowing how these work, form and continue can allow us to change and improve. 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 habits to ditch the bad ones. Then, once we have a base of good and positive habits, it’s easier to build more successful habits upon them.