Do you have bad habits that you wish to change? Of course you do, we all do. Whether it be biting your fingernails, over-eating or wasting away on Facebook, we are doing things that may be bad for us and we want to change them, but often can’t find a way how.
In his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business”, Charles Duhigg explains that the habit is controlled by what he calls the “habit loop”. This habit loop is composed of three parts.
- Cues – This is the trigger that starts the loop such as feeling down, or being anxious
- Routine – This is the action that is carried out after the trigger such as eating, or drinking
- Reward – This is the feeling that you get afterwards that the brain seeks to achieve with the routine such as feeling satisfied, or calm.
Over time, this habit loop becomes more automatic causing the brain to respond with the routine as soon as the cue comes up, and then it becomes impossible to control.
So how do we break the habit? Well according the Duhigg, we can’t. What we can do however, is change the routine, but keep the reward. It is important to remember that the reward is the feeling, and not the action, such as eating the cake, or taking that drink. So whatever routine you use, must bring about the same reward.
So let’s look for example the alcoholic, as shown in the figure taken from the book.
- We see the person getting distressed over something (the cue), they take a few drinks or get drunk (the routine) and then they momentarily feel calm and relieved (the reward).
- Now let’s change the routine. The person gets distressed (the cue), they call their sponsor and talk things through (the new routine), then they feel calm and relieved (the reward). The routine change used here is actually used by Alcoholics Anonymous to change the behaviours.
Obviously it takes some effort to change the routine, but over time it also become automatic. So how do you go about changing the routine? There are a few steps that you need to take.
- First, become aware of when the bad habit occurs. Don’t try to change anything, just take a notebook or an index card and take a note of when the habit comes up for a week. This is awareness training and is the first step to changing habits.
- Second, think about what triggers the habit such as boredom or anxiety. Then think what you felt after you completed your habit, such as calm or fulfilled.
- Third, add the competing response – the new routine – to the old one that you wanted to change.
Seems deceptively easy isn’t it. The truth is that not all habits are that easy to change and may require social pressure or even belief in a higher power to do so.
One important thing to note is that you don’t want to replace one bad routine with another bad one – like replacing eating with smoking. So think carefully what is the new routine that you want to use – like replacing eating with journal writing.
In another article, I’ll discuss how to create a new habit.