By Riley Corboy
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
That quote is by Charles Duhigg, journalist and author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life,” who has gotten habit-building down to a science. Building sustainable habits isn’t easy — anyone who has tried and failed to keep a New Year’s resolution can tell you — but with the right system set in place, it can be done.
Duhigg’s method begins by defining something called the habit loop. This is a four-step process that our brains undertake subconsciously most of the time, involving a cue, a routine and a reward. For example, when it comes to brushing your teeth, the cue might be noticing your teeth feel dirty, the routine is actually brushing them and the reward is having clean-feeling teeth. The fourth, and sneakiest, step in this loop is called craving. This is when we feel the habit cue and anticipate the reward we are going to get from it.
There are two different types of habit-building: creating brand new habits and curbing bad habits that no longer serve us. To build a new habit from scratch, choose a cue and a reward suitable to your needs. If you want to be more physically active during the workday, for instance, your cue might be a reminder you set on your phone, the routine could be doing a couple laps around the office and the reward could be stopping by your friend’s desk for a few minutes of friendly chatter at the end. To do this properly, the cue and reward have to be specifically tailored to what will motivate you. That way, when the initial shiny few days of motivation wear off, you will be able to continue soldiering ahead.
When it comes to addressing bad habits, Duhigg firmly believes you can’t make a bad habit go away entirely. You can, however, tweak it slowly over time until, eventually, there is a good habit in its stead. Trying to change an ingrained habit will take a little more willpower and introspection than making a new one, but it is entirely doable. First, pick the habit you want to change and track for a week how often you do it. In this stage, don’t try to change your behavior but do some legwork to figure out what the cue and reward is. Notice what you were feeling or doing immediately preceding the habit and how you felt after its routine. This might not be as obvious as you first expect.
The next step in changing a habit is to play around with different rewards. Let’s say you find yourself eating a candy bar every afternoon at work and want to change that. In this stage, when you feel the cue to go buy that candy bar, try to alter the routine and reward to find what alternate might satisfy this craving best. You could try buying a granola bar, going for a short walk, getting a cup of coffee or spending a few minutes at your friend’s desk. Try out several different routine/reward combinations to find which one would make the most satisfying replacement to the candy bar. This shows you what you’re actually craving — be it socialization, energy or mobility — and allows you to implement the best alternative.