Habits are the brain’s own internal productivity drivers. Constantly striving for more efficiency, the brain quickly transforms as many tasks and behaviors as possible into habits so that we can do them without thinking, thus freeing up more brainpower to tackle new challenges. In general, this modus operandi of our minds leads to incredible benefits. But, on occasion, it makes it seem nearly impossible to break bad habits—or integrate new ones—when we don’t know what’s happening inside the black box of the unconscious.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writer Charles Duhigg does a deep dive into the science of habits to explain how they work and how we can change them. It’s a fascinating read that crisply breaks down the habit-formation process, and—perhaps more importantly—the habit-changing process.
How Habits Get Formed.
When we first engage in a new task, our brains are working hard—processing tons of new information as we find our way. But, as soon as we understand how a task works, the behavior starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases dramatically.
Think about how much brainpower and concentration you had to use the first time you parallel parked or even the first time you tied your shoelaces. Then compare that to the amount of mental effort you exert doing those activities now.
Duhigg writes, “This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day.”
How Habit Loops Work.
Habits consist of a simple, but extremely powerful, three-step loop. Here’s Duhigg:
The first rule of habit-changing is that you have to play by the rules. That is, there’s no escaping the three-step loop (e.g. cue, routine, reward) because it’s hard-wired into our brains.
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. Let’s say you like to go out with your coworkers at the end of a long day and have a few drinks. In this situation, there are actually two rewards: (1) the socializing that inevitably occurs, and (2) the relaxing effects of the alcohol on your nervous system.
Both of those rewards are valid and necessary. If you remove drinking from your life, but replace it with nothing else, you’ll likely be unhappy. The trick is to keep the cue (e.g. tired after a long day) and the rewards (e.g. social time, relaxation) while changing the routine (e.g. drinking).
An alternative routine could be to convince a co-worker or friend to start exercising with you after work—running, yoga, rock climbing, or whatever works for you. Then you have a healthy routine (exercise) that replaces the negative routine (drinking) while yielding the same rewards (social time, relaxation).
When you’re trying to get the new routine integrated into your life, don’t be afraid to dwell on the rewards. It’s actually a good thing. Duhigg writes:
Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. As we all know, forming new habits is hard. Just because you’re telling your brain that there’s a reward, doesn’t meant the habit will stick. It only really sinks in when—through enough repetition—your brain comes to crave the reward.
Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment-—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
But that’s still not everything. We’ve all managed to implement new habits for a month or two, only to have them compromised when we’re under extreme stress. If we truly want to avoid backsliding into our old ways, there’s a final key ingredient: Belief. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group,” says Duhigg. Taking the classic example of one of the most effective habit-changing organizations ever, Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg continues:
Those alcoholics who believed… that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.
It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Groups create accountability and belief—key ingredients in helping us stick with new habits. Thus, if you want to write more, consider joining a writing group. If you want to run more, consider joining a running club. The more positive reinforcement you can surround yourself with, the easier it will be to make difficult changes.
For a more in-depth look at how habits underpin the success of individuals from Michael Phelps to Martin Luther King and companies like Target and P&G, check out The Power of Habit. Being aware of how our habits work is the first step.
What’s Your Approach To Habits?
How have you found success implementing new habits or getting rid of old ones?