Did you know that about 40 percent of the actions you take each day are habits? Habits are behavioral patterns stored in your brain that you perform without thinking about them. They help you conserve your mental energy for things that you need to pay more attention to. For example, think about your routine when you wake up in the morning, or when you get ready to go to sleep. You probably do the same series of things just about every day.
Habits can be very helpful, but if you develop habits that don’t contribute to your health and well-being, they can be harmful as well. For example, the author of a book I recently read (details at the bottom of this article) described a habit of going to the cafeteria at his workplace every afternoon and buying a cookie. Doing this occasionally might not be a bad thing, but as an everyday habit it contributed to his gaining weight. Once a behavior has become a habit, it can be difficult to change because it is stored in the brain and takes conscious attention to override. If you are busy or distracted and don’t focus your attention on doing something different, your habit will take over.
To change a habit or develop a new one, it’s helpful to recognize how habits work. They have three parts:
* The Cue. This is the thing that triggers the habit. It could be a state of mind (I’m bored), a time of day (it’s 2:00 and I’m hungry), an event (my alarm just went off), a place (I just walked into my kitchen), another person (my sister is here), or something else.
* The Routine. This is what you do when the cue occurs. It could involve putting on your shoes and going for a run after you get out of bed; pouring a glass of wine when you start cooking dinner; starting your car, putting it into reverse, looking in the mirror, and backing down your driveway once you are in the drivers’ seat; or just about anything else you can think of.
* The Reward. This is the payoff for engaging in the routine. Again, it could be anything that feels good to you–a sugar rush from eating a piece of chocolate, enjoyment of a conversation with your friend, a temporary distraction from your routine, or just about anything else that feels pleasurable to you. When the reward becomes powerful enough that your desire for it becomes a craving, the habit becomes very hard to break, and might even become an addiction.
If you want to develop a new habit, you need to work on the three parts. What will you use as a cue? What is the routine you want to develop? What will be the reward? For example, you may want to develop the habit of flossing your teeth. You could pick a time of day when you will do this, or find another event to use as a cue. A friend of mine uses his first cup of coffee as a trigger for flossing his teeth.
Once you have defined the cue and the routine, you need to figure out what the reward will be. It could be something simple like a sense of well-being from doing a physical activity that feels good; you could track your progress on a calendar, with the activity of placing a star or checkmark on the calendar being your reward; or, for bigger and more important habits–such as staying calm when your child wants to have an argument–you could find a more tangible reward, such as taking a bubble bath, pouring a glass of wine, or buying yourself a treat.
Building a habit takes time–you need to put conscious attention into noticing the cue, performing the action, and experiencing the reward. How much time? It can vary. Although there is a saying floating around that it takes 21 days to build a habit, there is not much research evidence to support this as a “magic number.” Some habits take much longer to form. But over time you will find that your brain automatically shifts into gear when the cue occurs and carries you through the routine without you needing to think about it.
If you are trying to change a habit rather than build a new one, the process is a little different. You need to pay attention to the habit and figure out what the cue, the routine, and the reward are.
Start with the routine. What is it you want to change? Maybe you want to stop spending time online in the morning and do something more productive.
Next, focus on the reward. What is the payoff for doing the habitual activity? One way to approach this is to substitute some different routines for the one you are trying to change. For example, instead of going online, you might take a walk, or read, or cook a good breakfast. After each activity, jot down the first few things that come to mind–feelings, thoughts, or whatever words pop into your head. Then set your alarm for 10 minutes. Do you still feel the impulse to go online? Your goal is to see if you can figure out what reward you are craving by paying attention to which of the alternative activities feel satisfying to you.
Then figure out the cue. This isn’t always easy. When you engage in an activity, there are many things that are happening that might be acting as the trigger. One way to do this is to notice when the urge hits you to do the activity. Then write down 5 things: Where you are, who you are with, how you are feeling, what time it is, and what you were doing just before it. After you’ve done this a few times, you may start to see a pattern–for example, you may get the urge to go online when you are feeling anxious about the day ahead, or at 8:00, or after you have poured a cup of coffee.
Finally, make a plan. Once you have figured out the cue, and the reward, you can choose a different routine–one that will deliver the reward you are craving, that you can begin when you see the cue. For example, if you find that feeling anxious about the day ahead triggers your online behavior, and that the reward is that your mind is distracted for a little while before the start of the day, you might decide to do 10 minutes of meditation instead of going online whenever you notice your anxiety.
It may take a long time to change your habit. You may need to experiment, and be patient with yourself when you fail. But by understanding the mechanics of habits, and taking control of them, you can make positive changes in your life.
If you’d like to read more about habits, one excellent book (that I used as a resource for this article) is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.