Make it a habit to improve your habits


I wrote recently about the value of habits. But I didn’t answer the obvious questions about how we get our habits in the first place or how to get rid of habits we don’t like.


What is a habit?

A habit is a behavior we engage in without conscious thought. According to the research explained in The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, a “habit loop” has three specific qualities:

Cue: A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.

Routine: This is the actually habit behavior we engage in and can be physical, mental or emotional.

Reward: The reward helps your brain decide if this particular habit is worth remembering.


I’m at work but I don’t remember driving here

For example, we drive a certain way to work everyday and our brain makes it a habit so we don’t think about it. Let’s break it down into the three parts of a habit loop.

First, we get in the car on Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. which is the cue or trigger to tell our brain we’re going to work.

Next our brain relies on previous experiences from driving to work, such as where to turn and what exits to take. We’re able to drive to work and follow following a certain route without much conscious thought, which is the routine.

Finally, we receive the reward of arriving at work without much hassle, which was what we set out to do. So our reward is the sense of accomplishment of completing a necessary task without using much mental energy.


How did we get the habits we have?

Habits are simply the result from repeating a certain behavior until it becomes ingrained. Many habits are personal items such as when we get dressed everyday, take a shower, or go to school or work plus a huge number of other routine activities.

These type of habits are great because our brains would explode if we had to consciously think about each step of everything we do all day. “Okay, first I’ll sit down on the chair and put my left foot in the left shoe, reach down and tie the strings and then . . . ”


Watch out for these habits

Other habits we might pick up by accident without realizing it. For example, suppose we’re at home and feeling bored. We grab the TV remote and watch for a little bit which relieves the boredom. If this behavior is repeated often enough it becomes a habit because we’ve taught our brain that the cure for boredom is to watch television.

Going back to the habit loop, when we’re at home and feel bored, this emotion acts as a cue. Our brain realizes we’re bored so we automatically turn on the television, which is the routine. All the sudden and without much thought, we’re watching Seinfeld reruns and the boredom has gone away, which is the reward.

In that case we selected one remedy (watching television) to cure our boredom and through repetition it becomes engrained as a habit.


How to change a habit

We can change a habit by interrupting the habit loop of “Cue-Routine-Reward.” In the television example, we could simply put the remote in another part of the room where it’s more difficult to pick it up without thinking.

If the remote was on top of the refrigerator, in the garage, under the bed or buried in the back yard, then we wouldn’t be able to automatically turn on the television when we’re bored. We could still turn it on, but only with conscious thought of finding the remote and not as a habitual response to boredom.

The solutions are limited only by your imagination and how important it is for you to break the habit. Give your television away or smash it with a baseball bat? Those would both work too 🙂


Try a new Routine

The ideas above were all focused on breaking the link between Cue and Routine. You can also change a habit by substituting a different behavior as the Routine in the habit loop.

For example, when boredom creeps in, look for another solution instead of watching television. Try going for a walk, talking to your neighbors, learning to juggle, or make shadow puppets on the wall.


What about the Reward?

To break a habit you can also change your attitude towards the reward. Remind yourself that the reward of watching television might also have negative side effects such as turning your brain to mush .

So the next time you watch television out of habit, tell yourself your brain cells are falling out on the floor. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what happens but make up any story to remind yourself why you wanted to change the habit in the first place.


How about all of the above?

Really want to change a habit? Do all the above. Hide the remote and then talk to your neighbor while making shadow puppets. Remind yourself that if you don’t watch television, you’ll have more time to learn a new language, discover a cure for cancer or develop super powers.

You get the idea. Break up the habit loop and replace any and all of the parts that are supporting a habit you want to get rid of.


One more thing to add

Possibly the most important part of changing a habit is to have a good reason why you want to change in the first place. Habits are so hard to get rid of because they are automatic behaviors and we have to counter them with conscious choices which take much more effort.

Trying to change a habit is much easier when we are motivated by a strong sense of purpose.  So if it’s difficult to change a habit, take time to step back and look at the big picture and think about why you want to change. Because it will be easier to change a habit if it’s part of our plan to live a meaningful life.

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