I would like to start this post by posing a few questions. How many of you struggle with bad habits? How many of you find it difficult to develop good habits? How many of you are consciously aware when you are acting on these habits, good or bad? Well, by the end of this post, my hope is for these questions to be answered.
In this post I will be reviewing an awesome book, by far the best I have read yet, called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I picked up this book several years ago, and found it so practical and informative that to this day I use many of the concepts discussed in the book in my daily life.
The main concept discussed in the book, which is further analyzed by scientific research and relevant examples, is the idea of how every habit, good or bad, has a que, a routine, and a reward attached to it. This is also commonly referred to as a ‘habit loop’ in the book. The que is usually an external trigger, an example provided in the book is that of an alarm clock going off. The routine (which can be emotional, mental or physical behavior) is the activity you perform, thereby acting on the que, for examples you walk straight to the bathroom to brush your teeth, and the reward following the routine could be something like your breath smelling minty fresh.
The same is true for bad habits that you wish to change, but find it extremely difficult to do so. According to the book, changing one part of the loop, the routine, can help create a new habit loop, in this case, a more positive one. The change does not have to be very drastic in nature. For example, lets say you have a bad habit of leaving the dishes in the sink after using them, instead of rinsing them off with water and putting them into the dishwasher. The que in this case could be pure laziness. The routine, as you can imagine could be the fact that as a result of laziness, you just leave the dish in the sink, and maybe think to yourself, ‘I’ll get to it later’. The reward following this action could be more free time to watch television. By changing the routine, for example, keeping your cell phone on the kitchen counter, may result in you putting the dish in the dishwasher right away, thereby causing less dishes to pile up in the sink.
Our habits are are caused by ‘cravings.’ The habit of doing something causes us to feel a certain way after it’s done, which is the reward of performing the habit. For example, as mentioned in the book, the habit of going to the gym everyday could yield a reward of a rush of endorphin’s to your brain which makes you feel good after the workout. You crave the feel good endorphin’s as a result of working out. The same goes for bad habits, whereby you crave a chocolate chip cookie, which results in a kind of emotional or mental satisfaction.
According to the author, many of us don’t even realize these habit loops, and how they may be affecting us. Approximately forty percent of what we do in our lives occur on autopilot. We are literally unaware of the fact that we are running on autopilot for close to the majority of our waking hours. On the other hand, it is important for us to have these habits run on autopilot sometimes, as it helps our brain save energy during these waking hours.
In order to switch from bad habits to good habits, one requires willpower. According to the book, willpower is one of the ‘keystone’ habits, that if practiced with discipline, can help ‘redirect’ a habit. One way to implement this keystone habit is by redirecting the routine part of the loop to yield a different reward. If you have a habit you are trying to change, say eating chocolate chip cookies, the next time the cue is triggered, and the craving comes to you, bite into an apple instead, that will satisfy the sweet craving, and the reward would be a healthier choice in snacks, and not to mention weight loss and psychological satisfaction of not giving into the temptation. Experiment with this cue, routine, reward loop for a week, and see how you feel. The reward is what really drives the action to turn into a habit.
The reason why it’s so difficult to change a habit is because the basal ganglia, which is the most primitive part of the brain, stores the habit permanently, making it very hard to change. Research conducted on patients with Alzheimer’s disease found that they may have forgotten numerous events or people in their lives as a consequence of the illness, but there are certain parts of their lives, habits that were formed from an early age, that have managed to stay intact.
Willpower, if implemented correctly over a period of time, should yield positive results. It may take a lot of trial and error, but the end results will be positive. We are not perfect beings, we all make mistakes, we all have bad habits, and sometimes it is difficult to admit even to ourselves. But, so long as we don’t wallow in these bad habits, and do something about them, we can constantly strive for improvement, and progress in our lives. As the author quotes, “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.” – Charles Duhigg.