Most of us start the New Year with the hope of making changes — to exercise regularly, lose weight, be more productive, be closer to the ones we love, etc. These resolutions usually last for few days or maybe few weeks before they are forgotten. Have yours been forgotten already? Have you ever wondered why that is?
Habits! They have an eternal appeal because they remove the element of choice, but they are often hard to develop or change.
Charles Duhigg, author of the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, says that 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions but habits. And habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.
Duhigg recommends trying the three-step habit loop for a week to create a new habit. He describes it as cue, routine, reward.
- The cues are triggers that tell your brain to engage.Time, location, environmental factors, even emotions can be cues.
- The routines are physical, emotional or mental behaviors that you want to become a habit.
- The rewards help your brain register — this habit is worth remembering.
For example, when the bell rings (cue), I will study (routine) because it provides me with good grades (reward).
One my clients, Alice, is a writer, and she tried Duhigg’s habit loop to get into the habit of limiting distractions from emails and the Internet while working. She wrote down her plan and put it right above her desk. It read:
After I make tea at 11 a.m., I will go online and check my email because it provides me with an opportunity to chat with my friend.
In her plan you will notice that to break herself of an old habit (being distracted by the Internet), she had to find out a way implement a healthier routine. And, it provided a similar reward, which was chatting with her friend.
Alice began her morning by writing for two hours, and she stayed off the Internet. At 11 a.m. she made herself tea (her cue!) and got online and checked her email and social media (routine). After sticking to the routine for three days, she arranged to see a friend for coffee (a treat!). By the end of the week she was feeling calm and productive. She felt in harmony with her new schedule.
Let me give you an another example from what I observe commonly in relationships.
When Susie starts nagging (cue), Bill’s brain goes into automatic mode (routine). He recognizes that they have had similar fights many times before. Bill’s routine response is to defend himself and try to prove how unfair Susie’s accusations are. In turn, Susie’s routine response is to insist that Bill is missing the point. Their conversation spirals down a very predictable path. This way of relating has become a habit. At the end, they both feel frustrated and stop interacting. The reward is that the fight stops, yes that is true, but their relationship grows more distant with each argument.
Learning to look for the three-step habit loop in our every day life helps us deal with relationships better.
If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. Susie and Bill had to learn new habits to break the argumentative routine they were stuck in. In therapy, they came to understand the emotions that kept driving those negative habits.
Once the habit loop has been reworked, we need to believe we can make it a permanent change. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible.” says Duhigg.
Habits aren’t destiny. Using the three-step habit loop and surrounding ourselves with positive reinforcements, we can transform our lives.