Ask anyone who’s ever tried to stop smoking or lose weight and they will tell you that it’s very hard. Even those who manage to change their behavior will often fall back to their old ways at some point, often during stressful or difficult times.
Why is it so hard to change what we do? Aren’t we in control of our own actions? Turns out, we’re not. Not consciously at least. When we repeatedly engage in a certain type of behavior, a small part of our brain called the basal ganglia stores the behavior and a habit is created. We no longer need to consciously think about it, we go on auto-pilot.
This is what The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is about. Most of our daily activities are based on habits. Putting toothpaste on our toothbrushes, packing lunch before going to work or backing your car out of the drive way.
The Habit Loop
Habits consist of three parts: (1) the cue (2) the routine and (3) the reward. The cue is what triggers your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The routine is the action that follows and the reward is the benefit that we experience that prompted us to create the habit to start with.
Example: Let’s say everyday on your way to work you walk by Starbucks and buy a muffin. The cue in this case is seeing the Starbucks, the routine is buying the muffin and the reward is the the pleasure that we get from eating it.
The reason why habits are so hard to break is that our brain connects the reward with the cue. As soon as we witness the cue, we anticipate the reward and a strong craving emerges. In the example, as soon as we see the Starbucks, we crave the muffin and the routine kicks in.
Breaking the Habit
To break a habit, we first need to find out what the exact reward is that we crave. What is it exactly that we crave about the reward? In our example, why do we want the muffin? Is it to satisfy our hunger? Is it the energy from the sugar? Or maybe it’s because we like to chat to the cashier.
To find out, we need to experiment and change the reward with something different. For the next few days, instead of buying a muffin we could get a coffee for example. The next few days, instead of going to the Starbucks, when we walk past we eat an apple. Or walk straight to work and chat with some colleagues before we start work.
By experimenting and seeing how different actions satisfy our craving we figure out what the craving was. Let’s say it turns out we craved satisfying our hunger. In that case, eating an apple on our way to work should work.
Notice how the cue and the reward are still the same (seeing the Starbucks and satisfying our hunger) but our routine has changed. Instead of walking in to buy a muffin, we replaced it with eating an apple.
Changing a habit this way is much more sustainable than to try to remove the habit. We could just tell ourselves that every time we walk past the Starbucks we’ll just be strong and not walk in. This may work for a while. But one day we’ll have a weak day and we’ll fall back into the habit.
Other than changing undesirable habits, we can also create a desirable one. Let’s say we want to start going for a run every morning when we wake up. The cue could be seeing our sweat pants on a chair when we wake up. The routine is putting them on and going for a run. The reward is the good feeling we get from the run.
It takes about a month for our brain to create a habit and associate the reward with the cue, hence create a craving. Therefore, we need to force ourselves to go for a run each morning during this time. After a while, we’ll wake up, see the sweat pants and experience the good feeling that we get from running just by looking at the pants.
To change our life, we need to change our habits. In the words of William James, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits - practical, emotional, and intellectual - systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
The Power of Habit tells us why we do what we do and how to change it. Breaking undesirable habits and creating desirable ones can significantly change our life.
This is a book review of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, written by Charles Duhigg. It's available on Amazon.
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