Do you think you could improve your life just by changing your habits? The good news is you can!
In the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts school Headmaster Dumbledore counsels Harry, “It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” I love this quote, and used it as my screen saver for a number of years. It seems like great advice. But what if it isn’t our choices that make us who we are, but our habits?
Most choices we make in our lives are not decisions, they are habits. A study by Duke University scientists found that 40% of the actions we take each day are actually habits, not choices. Each habit may be small and inconsequential on its own, but over time they can have a large impact on our lives. Our habits determine our health, happiness, finances, and professional success. They also cause our downfalls such as loss of productivity, overweight, and smoking, alcohol or drug addictions.
Habits emerge because our brains look for ways to save effort. The brain likes finding patterns and setting up routines. In this way, the brain can conserve energy for other tasks, particularly those that encourage survival. Without habits, our brains would become overwhelmed by attending to all the little details of every moment of every day.
For example think about driving a car. Many of the things you do while driving are automatic. You can turn on the engine, step on the accelerator and turn on the windshield wipers without much effort or thought. Have you ever driven someplace familiar and find yourself there before you know it, hardly remembering where you drove or what you did to get there? We drive automatically, but it wasn’t always so. When you first learned to drive you had to think, to focus hard on doing each task and coordinate your efforts in steering and pressing either the gas or the brake pedal.
Somewhere along the line, we stop making a choice and our actions become automatic. Teenagers drivers haven’t developed automatic driving habits yet, which is one of the reasons why distractions such as having others in the car is so troublesome for them.
In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times columnist Charles Duhigg makes a case for how we can change our habits.
In order to change our habits, we need to recognize the pattern.
The first step is recognizing a cue. When driving, a cue might be seeing rain.
The next step is to start a routine. When you see rain, you automatically turn on the windshield wipers.
The third step is a reward. The reward for turning on the windshield wipers is that you can now see more clearly and driving is easier.
That is a pattern, and how our habits are formed.
What if we want to change a habit?
Turning on the windshield wipers when it is raining is a good habit and probably not one we want to get rid of. But what if we want to change a bad habit? We all have habits that we would like to change, such as bedtime snacking or procrastinating.
According to scientists, a habit cannot be eradicated, but it can be replaced. In order to change a habit we can keep the same cue and the same reward, but change the routine.
Here is a personal example. I often feel an energy lag in the afternoon. I used to drink a Diet Coke, which became a daily afternoon routine. The soda gave me a pleasurable taste and the caffeine gave me an energy boost.
If we look at the habit we see:
The cue: mid-afternoon energy lag
The routine: drink a diet soda
The reward: pleasurable taste and boost in energy.
It is a perfect habit: cue, routine and reward.
As I started to take a look at my health, I discovered that my afternoon soda was full of hard to digest chemicals and that it messed with insulin levels, actually making me more hungry and undermining my efforts with dieting. I decided that I needed to stop drinking my afternoon soda. You can read more about it in this post.
I was able to successfully change my habit. The cue remained the same, I was tired. However I changed the routine. I replace by diet soda with a chai tea with frothed milk and a dash of cinnamon. I found the same reward, a pleasurable taste and a boost in energy. However, my new habit was far healthier than my old one.
Two years later, though I once craved my afternoon soda, I don’t miss it at all. My new habit is not only healthier, because I make the tea myself, it is far cheaper. I have replaced a bad habit with a better one.
To change a habit, find the cue. What is triggering you? Then look at the routine- what do you do about it? Finally, look at the rewards. What reward to do you get when you engage in the routine?
Find a way to change the routine in order to get the same rewards. What are you looking for? Relaxation, escape, emotional release, companionship, energy, fun, excitement, eliminating boredom and satisfaction for a job well done are all rewards. There is more than one way to get the reward you want.
You are not the first one to eat a cookie because you are bored, or to drink a glass of wine because you are stressed. There is a cue, a routine, and a reward. Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie, but when your habits are causing problems you need to think about replacing them with a new habit.
I have more habits to work on, but by tackling them bit by bit, it seems possible.
What about you? Have you successfully replaced a bad habit? if so, I would love to hear about it in the comments.