In his book, The Power of Habit , Charles Duhigg brilliantly describes how pivotal a role habits play in our everyday lives. Once something becomes a habit, we can perform the task on auto-pilot, sometimes not even realizing what we are doing.
While many habits keep us from having to remember thousands of tiny details every day, like how to drive to work, once a bad habit forms it can be difficult to overcome. By understanding how habits form, we can build new ones and even change bad ones.
The Habit Loop
Early in the book, Duhigg outlines the habit loop. He defines this loop as “cue, routine, reward”. Each time the loop is performed, the habit grows stronger.
Imagine your favorite dessert. Think about the texture, the flavor, the aroma. Now imagine that every time you ran a mile, you got that dessert. After a while, your mind would start craving that sugary deliciousness, but it would also want you to run. Why? Because it has linked running with the dessert.
So now we know that the key to forming habits is to set a cue and find a reward we desire. Make sure the cue is something easily repeatable and the reward is something that truly motivates you.
How to Break Bad Habits
Breaking a bad habit is more difficult, but once you understand the cue, the goal is to change the routine to a better habit. That way the cue and reward stay the same, but the new routine becomes ingrained as a habit instead of the old one.
Let’s say you get a snack every time you go into the break room. You go to the break room because you want to talk with your coworkers, but all those snacks are affecting your waistline. In this case, the cue is the desire to interact with your coworkers and the reward is getting to fulfill that need.
So, to break the habit of snacking, just change the middle part of the loop, the routine. Instead of going to the break room, go directly to the coworker’s desk. Or met at a location without food. Pretty soon you’ll break your snacking habit.
Repetition is Key
The second key to building a habit is repeating the loop over and over again. I’ve heard some people say you need to do something for three weeks for a habit to take hold. I’ve heard others say it’s more like 100 days. Either way repeating the cue, routine, and reward until you get to the point of not consciously performing the habit loop is key.
I print out a calendar and attach it to my refrigerator. My goal is to perform the new routine each day, in this case exercising at least 15 minutes a day. While the goal may seem small (I should probably be exercising for more than 15 minutes) I’m just focused on building a strong base for my habit when I start.
Once you are in the habit of doing something, increasing the intensity is easy. Say you want to save more. Set a goal of saving $1 a day. It may not seem like much, but once you are in the habit of saving $1, saving $5 won’t seem that difficult.
Once you have $5 down, moving up to $10 will be a lot easier than if you started at $10. Since the goal is to repeat the routine each and every day, starting gradually will make it easier when you start. If you would have a hard time saving $10 a day, you will be more likely to make excuses or miss a day, preventing the habit from forming.
Tracking Daily Wins
So what’s that calendar for anyway? As I was saying before, the goal is to perform the routine each day. I use the calendar as a way to keep myself honest. Every day I perform the routine I place an X on the calendar. Jerry Seinfeld calls this the “Don’t Break the Chain” method.
After a few days, crossing out the day on the calendar becomes the motivation for performing the routine. Once I have a streak to uphold, those minor excuses in the back of my head become a lot easier to shut out since I need to keep the streak alive. Before long the new habit has become a part of my everyday routine.
Starting Your Own Habits
Next time you want to form a new habit, try using the calendar method. Remember it’s still important to find repeatable cues and rewards that motivate you. You must keep the cues and rewards a part of your everyday life to keep the habit going.
What’s a habit you want to start or wish to stop? Let me know in the comments