I’m gonna make a change,
For once in my life.
It’s gonna feel real good,
Gonna make a difference,
Gonna make it right…
~Michael Jackson, The Man In The Mirror
It’s five o’clock on a Monday evening.
As you leave the office to pick up your kids, you remember that you forgot to shop for groceries on Sunday. Darn it, you are too tired to cook. You decide to pick up fast food on the way.
You missed the scheduled workout with your buddy at lunch time (you got distracted by emails and forgot all about the Zumba class at your company gym). As six o’clock rolls around your energy is waning. A quick fix of Coke couldn’t hurt right? Except the combination of fast food and coke keeps you (and your digestive system) up all night.
You wake up late on Tuesday morning. There goes your planned hour of writing and meditation! You scramble into the office exhausted. Do you really need me to tell you how your Tuesday’s gonna go?
This is probably not your first time bailing on a workout or ordering out fast food. In fact, I bet that your buddy has had it with your lack of commitment; she is ready to quit. She is the only thing motivating you in the first place. Your bathroom scale has become your worst nightmare, yet you can’t seem to make a change to save your life.
True, one fast food dinner is not going to kill you. Are you really worse off because you cheated on your diet just this once? What harm could missing one workout do? Maybe checking those emails was more important. Don’t you feel better might in case you get pulled into your VP’s office?
How do you change a habit? How do you unlearn bad habits cultivated over a lifetime?
If you are like me, you may have tried to force yourself to adopt the new habit. After all, studies indicate that any routine that you follow for 3 to 4 weeks becomes a habit. Just keep plugging away at a new routine even if you are not enthusiastic and even as your returns diminish.
Blindly adopting a new practice alone won’t make the habit stick. As Charles Duhigg, explains in his bestselling book “The Power Of Habit” you must begin by understanding how habits work. Duhigg provides compelling stories – how Alcoholics Anonymous changes people’s lives; how a Colts coach led his team to an unprecedented Super Bowl victory in 2006; how a CEO change his company culture by adopting a keystone habit – to illustrate that key to changing habits is to study how habits operate.
The Habit Loop
Habits are curious things. We may now consider them to be effective mechanisms for increasing our productivity or training ourselves to achieve challenging goals, but in reality they are an evolutionary process. They emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to say effort.
Throughout evolution, the human brain has sought to conserve mental energy which has led to a denser and more compact brain.
But since our brain performs complex functions such as receiving knowledge, storing it, and retrieving it for decision making; it consumes more energy than any other organ in our body.
The brain conserves effort through a process known as chunking. It converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine – think of it as modules created by your brain’s own programming language.
There are thousands of behavioral chunks we use in our daily lives – making a cup of coffee, brushing our teeth, driving a car, even how we perceive and respond to emotions.
Anytime the brain wants to form a new habit, it relies on a process to create a behavioral chunk.
The process is a loop consisting of three steps.
- A trigger (cue) instructs your brain to switch to automatic mode.
- Your brain then accesses a known routine – physical or mental – to take required action.
- At the end of the routine comes the reward, usually in the form of a hormone release which cements the loop in your memory.
Let’s consider the behavior of checking email.
- Cue – Your computer chimes notifying you that there are is a new message
- Routine – The anticipation (or dread) of an unread email builds until you open your inbox
- Reward – Once you open your email – which was probably an unnecessary FYI message about a team get together – and respond, you feel relieved and also a sense of having accomplished something.
Every habit displays these same three steps. Especially strong habits, such as addictions (yep, email), are ingrained by cravings.
When we are caught in these cravings, it is hard for us to break out of the habit loop. It’s hard to switch from automatic mode to decision making mode, to make a conscious choice – to not drink, to not smoke or to not stuff ourselves with junk food.
However, we can change our habits. We can resist temptations and make the right choice. But in order to do so we need to identify the trigger, the craving that’s the root cause for the behavior.
Identify the trigger
Every habit has a trigger or cue. We human beings are but more sophisticated animals, we tend to overlook cues as a valuable source of information for our habits.
On that Monday evening when you are headed towards the fast food store what is really happening in your brain? I can only guess from personal experience.
When you looked at your watch and saw that it was close to dinner time, you might have recalled how your children get cranky when they are hungry. You probably got stressed when you remembered how they tend to bicker with each other when are hungry and cranky. Rather than avoid a scene at the daycare you decide to go armed with fast food to pacify your hungry munchkins.
One way to change this habit would be to carry some healthy snacks in your car. Or you could pick up fruit cups or yogurt from the cafeteria or even pretzels from the vending machine.
Now that you are not stressed you are in a better frame of mind to fix a healthy dinner when you get home. You could also keep some staples in your fridge, pantry and freezer that can be thrown together quickly. Better yet, plan ahead and prepare your weekday meals during the weekend.
Triggers can be found everywhere, in words, in visual cues, in smells and most prominently in your memory.
This is why major companies use many marketing tactics to grab your attention. They lure you in with one trigger (fast service and hot food) and ensure your loyalty through others (salty fries that satisfy your taste buds).
Switch the routine
If you are failing to build a new habit, it is probably because you haven’t developed a consistent routine. Knowing in advance the ritual you will follow, will arm you to disregard distractions.
After all companies are not going to stop marketing their products; fast food will always be around. But if you anticipate the trigger and form a routine to support your good habit, you are more likely to follow through.
Map out your process for your home, office or when you are on the road. What are the essential components of your routine? Can you find tools to aid you? How can you create a routine that will allow you repeat the habit consistently?
When it comes to healthy eating, its good to create a list of foods that fit your diet. I mentioned fruit and yogurt as examples. There are many healthy “to-go” snacks available such as hummus/cheese and crackers, fruit strips and even light popcorn.
It is easier to stick to a healthy diet when you plan ahead. You might want to schedule weekly grocery shopping trips on your calendar instead of leaving it up to chance. You might also consider enrolling in a meal planning or meal delivery service that caters to your family’s dietary preferences.
What if you do have a routine, yet you can’t change a habit? Maybe your routine is not working for you. Your routine may be too restrictive or too open ended. On the other hand you might have adopted someone else’s routine and it isn’t working because it hasn’t been customized to suit your personality.
Here is a habit that most wanna be writers struggle with: developing a consistent writing habit. After all when you want to be a writer, it’s only logical that you would want to write, right?
The writing habit is hard to form for various reasons, writer’s block is a reality and it is hard to find time to write when you won’t be distracted by work or home related responsibilities. The reason I find it a challenge is because of my routine (or so I have realized).
I have tried a number of routines to write daily. I have used a third party website such as 750words. I have tried various online editors. I have tested various genres of music and different venues. Through all these changes, my writing routine never varied. I would start typing and keep going until the end.
Through trial and error, I found that my natural writing style is different. I enjoy writing in spurts. I like to capture a few sentences about an idea. Once I have expanded upon the first few sentences, rather than write an entire article from beginning to end, I go about it in a roundabout fashion. In fact, I find writing an entire article in one sitting to be exhausting!
I will collect a few sound bites on the subject – quotes, links, songs etc. I might abandon writing to create a visual – this may be a drawing or an image. This free flowing routine allows me to create several threads related to my topic. Then, all it takes is to weave those threads into a cohesive article.
Once my article has reached a certain length, I will schedule it to be auto published. This enforced schedule ensures that I close open loops and review the end product. It also curtails my perfectionist tendencies.
When you want to change a habit, test drive several routines. See which one works for you.
Reap the reward
Are you a coffee drinker? Why do you have a cup of coffee every morning?
What about your preference to work out with a friend rather than alone?
The reason we repeat routines is because we crave the reward waiting for us at the end. A practice that might have begun on a whim becomes a habit because we eagerly anticipate the reward that it provides.
We drink coffee not because we enjoy the slightly bitter taste, but because coffee smells good and provides comfort, it becomes part of our morning ritual.
We work out with a friend because we feel supported in our fitness journey; we enjoy sharing the post workout bliss with our buddy.
Studies show that people cultivate exercise habits to lose weight, but many of them continue their habit because they feel good. What starts out as a forced routine becomes an ingrained habit that brings a sense of accomplishment and self-reward.
What does all of this mean? It means that when we want to change a habit, not only should we attempt to change the cue or the routine, but we should also introduce a reward at the end of process.
To be more precise, you need a reward that is proportional to the task involved. The reward can’t be too challenging, or you might give up on trying to change the habit. The reward can’t be too easy, or you won’t be motivated enough to change.
When I rebooted my fitness journey, I would reward myself with a small piece of dark chocolate (the more bitter the better!) after a tiring workout. I would occasionally make a green smoothie. Either of these treats was a way to pat myself on the back for a job well done. Now, if I start eating chocolate on a regular basis, it becomes part of my eating habit and less of a reward.
Ultimately, we should rely on intrinsic motivation to change our habits. When we focus on internal rewards we are training ourselves to not depend on any external rewards.
Throughout my 20s, I focused on the scale as a way to motivate myself to exercise. A major shift occurred in my commitment and motivation, when I switched to an internal reward. These days I choose a healthy life because I love the way I feel when I am active. Nothing feels as good as feeling healthy and active.
Next week when five o’clock rolls around on any evening, you will be better prepared. You will have squeezed in a workout because you avoided getting distracted by email. You will have shopped for healthy food, so that you won’t be tempted to go through the fast food drive through. Since you energy is up from your afternoon workout and healthy dinner, you will wake up refreshed on Tuesday morning and crank out an awesome 2000 word article. Congratulations, you have changed your habit.
What’s next on your list? Changing your habit of checking email every 5 minutes? Just disable the pop-up notifications! Or better yet go offline.
Changing habits can be hard, its true. But this framework offers hope and guidance. By being aware of the triggers, our routines and the rewards we seek, we can gain greater self control. We can begin to appreciate the (wo)man in the mirror. We can make it right and eventually we can make a difference!