Changing Habits: How to Do It

by Barry Hill
Change your Habits
The smell of fresh coffee wafts through the air as my espresso machine fills with the delicious black-gold liquid.  With teeth brushed and shirt tucked, I down the espresso, pop in my earbuds, and begin the 25 minute stroll to the office downtown.  It’s a routine I’ve practiced hundreds of times over the years, and has become so ingrained in my day I don’t even have to think.  There are some mornings where I make it into the office and almost wonder how I got there, because I’ve gotten ready, left the house, and walked in to work almost completely on autopilot.

Humans are Creatures of Habit

It’s no secret.  As humans, we’re all creatures of habit.  From our morning routines, to our meal plans, and our recreation, we operate on habits that we develop over time.  When we routinely floss our teeth, clean after ourselves, and exercise regularly, we have our good habits to thank.  When we smoke cigarettes, snack constantly, and drink excessively, it’s our bad habits that are to blame.  Since up to 40% of our behavior can be directly attributed to the habits we’ve built, it’s crucial we understand how to augment them, because they truly shape the trajectory and quality of our lives.
Changing Habits

How to Change Your Habits

So what can be done?  Using willpower alone to change a habit is a surefire way to burn yourself out, or fail miserably, because willpower is a finite resource.  In order to modify our habits, we have to understand how they work.  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that habits operate in terms of cues, routines, and rewards.
Cue.  The cue is the event that triggers our habits initially.  They fall into 5 categories: timing, location, social group, emotion, or behavior.
Routine.  The routine is the actual behavior that takes place.  When we experience the cue, our brain essentially goes on autopilot with the action or emotion that we’re accustomed to performing.
Reward.  The reward is the literal satisfaction of our cravings.  Whether it’s to satisfy our hunger, change our surroundings, or modify the way we feel, it’s the ultimate outcome of what our brain is after.
Change your Habits

What is Triggering Your Habits?

In order to change our habits, we have to identify the cue that triggers us, then determine the outcome or reward we’re trying to fulfill, and then change the routine that will take us there.
Let’s take, for example, the habit of afternoon snacking while you’re in the office.  It’s caused you to gain a few pounds over the past several years, and you tell yourself each day you won’t reach for the candy bar.  Despite your best intentions, you still find yourself with that empty snack wrapper at the end of the day, and it’s something you want to change.
Now that you’ve identified the routine that you want to change, you must identify the reward.  Why is your brain telling you to reach for that afternoon snack?  Could it be something as simple as satisfying your hunger?  Perhaps it’s actually a desire to socialize with colleagues in the kitchen?  Or maybe you actually want a quick break from your work to recharge?

Experiment on Yourself

You can figure out your reward by running a series of experiments.  One day bring a banana or healthy snack into the office for whenever you feel the urge.  Does this satisfy your craving or are you still heading towards the kitchen?  Still snacking, got it.  The next day go for a walk around the block in the afternoon instead of reaching for a snack.  Still reaching for that candy bar?  If that doesn’t work try socializing with a co-worker for a few minutes.  Are you satisfied this time around and did you avoid that candy bar?
Let’s say for example that on the day you chat for a few minutes with your colleague, you don’t find yourself snacking.  This tells you that the reward you’re after is not actually satisfying hunger, it’s the desire to socialize with someone around you.  If that’s the case, then you need to figure out what the cue is that causes your brain to operate on that habit loop.  Is it time of day?  An emotion?  A certain location?  In the case of afternoon snacking, likely it’s brought on by the time of day.
So to change the habit, change the routine.  Each afternoon (the cue), make a point to go and socialize with a coworker (the routine), because it will satisfy your desire to gossip, chat, and interact (the reward).  This way, you are fulfilling your reward with a routine that actually serves and satisfies you, rather than one that causes you to gain weight.
Self Experiment

The Takeaway

Since we’re creatures of habit, and many of our actions are unconscious and the result of the habits that we’ve developed, it’s essential we are able to understand how to change our behavior.  We operate on cues, routines, and rewards.  So when you want to make a change, identify the cue, identify the reward, and change the routine that gets you there.  Have any stories of habits you’ve changed that you’d like to share?  We’d love to hear!

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