Do you have a bad habit that you’ve tried to break over and over without success? Maybe it’s cutting out refined sugars from your diet because you know that sugar causes inflammation, or keeping your desk clutter-free to increase productivity. But no matter how hard you try to stop, the unwanted behavior continues on and on and on….
It’s the Science!
We now know that sheer force of will does not break bad habits. Instead, studies have identified a simple neurological “loop” at the foundation of every habit that Charles Duhigg, a New York Times business writer, discusses in his new book, The Power of Habit.
The Habit Loop
Habits are actually our brains following a specific psychological pattern called a “loop” which consists of three parts:
1. The Cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode.
2. A Routine – the behavior itself.
3. A Reward – something your brain likes that reinforces the habit loop in the future.
Duhigg uses his own bad habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon to buy a chocolate chip cookie as an example of how the loop works.
Be the Change
Duhigg’s daily cookie habit was not only putting on the pounds, but also provoking snarly comments from his wife. To break the habit he first needed to identify the routine. In his case it was the act of going to the cafeteria every afternoon to buy a cookie.
The next step was to experiment with different rewards to figure out which one was driving his particular behavior. What Duhigg discovered was that his reward for going to the cafeteria was socializing with colleagues, not the cookie itself.
Next he needed to isolate the cue. Luckily, science has shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
• Location – where are you when the urge strikes?
• Time – what time is it?
• Emotional State – are you bored, tired, distracted, excited?
• Other People – Is anyone else around?
• Immediately Preceding Action – what action preceded the urge? Answering the phone? Replying to an email?
Duhigg determined that the particular cue triggering his behavior was time of day, specifically between 3:00 – 4:00 pm.
Plan for Success
Once you’ve identified your routine, reward and cue, you need to plan what specific action you are going to take every time you feel the urge to give in to the behavior or habit you are trying to break. For example, what ended up working for Duhigg was setting an alarm for 3:30 every afternoon. When it rings he gets up from his desk, and socializes with co-workers for ten minutes – his cookie habit loop has now been replaced by a healthier alternative.
The good news is that it is never too late to break a habit. Just because you’ve tried to change in the past and failed, does not mean you are doomed to repeat the behavior over and over again.
But be patient. Breaking habits and changing behavior can take time so don’t beat yourself up if the cookie wins the first round.
Image: d u y g u