In the morning, you wake up, brush your teeth, and head downstairs. You feed the dog, maybe make coffee or hot tea, then make lunches and breakfast. You head upstairs, get dressed, and then head out to drop everyone off at school.
Once at work, you check your social media accounts in the same order every day (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) before checking your personal email and finally settling down to work.
You go to lunch at 11:45. Eat the same sandwich. Back to work until 5, when you pick up the kids, do homework, make dinner, spend some family time in front of the TV or playing a game, then it’s off to sleep.
Wake up the next day, and the cycle repeats. It is so routine that you don’t even really think about it anymore. Some days, you fall into bed and can’t remember one single moment clearly.
And this, says Pulitzer-prize winning author Charles Duhigg, is where our brains trap us into bad habits. In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains how we can use the three-part habit loop to change our lives for the better instead of living out a daily routine.
Part of understanding how this works is to focus on the habit loop.
The habit loop consists of a cue, the actual routine, and then a reward. Duhigg found that most studies in habit formation focus on the routine. By now you may have heard the saying that it takes 28 days to form a new habit (in reality it is more like 66 days), but Duhigg found that it wasn’t changing the behavior that changed the habit as much as it was changing the cue and the reward.
Duhigg believes that the meaningful reward and appropriate cue change the behavior (the routine) more than changing the routine itself changes:
“This gets to how habits work. The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically.”
In short, we can change our routine by cueing behavior instead and rewarding it in a meaningful way.
In his book, Duhigg presents an example of experiments in laboratory mice that illustrate this point. Researcher Wendy Wood pointed out that 40-45% of what we think of as daily decisions are actually just habits (like the daily routine above). Another researcher decided to examine what is happening in our brains as we go through these daily habits.
Ann Graybiel from MIT examined what happened to the brains of rats as they completed the world’s simplest maze: a T-shaped maze with the rat at the base and a piece of chocolate at the end of one of the arms. At first, when the rat was dropped in the maze, there was a flurry of brain activity. Time after time as the rat was dropped in the maze, the brain activity increased.
But as the rat got used to the maze and finding the chocolate in the correct arm, brain activity decreased to a nearly sleeping level. The rat was completing the routine of finding the chocolate in a half-awake state.
This is what happens to our brains on habits. In some cases (like a healthy exercise or healthy eating habit) performing these actions on autopilot is a good thing. But what if you are trying to change a habit that is not healthy or form a new habit?
The Power of Habit offers a very simple suggestion: wake up.
If you want to change a habit in a long-lasting way, it is important to understand your own habit loop and wake up in the middle where the routine is. The key to doing that is using an obvious cue and offering a meaningful reward.
For example, you want to save money, but it seems like every time you try to save, something comes up and you are unable to put away any part of your check. Create a meaningful cue to change the behavior, and then focus on a reward.
An example might be:
- Meaningful cue: You receive a five-dollar bill
- Routine: The five-dollar bill goes in a savings jar
- Reward: After a certain dollar amount, treat yourself to something that is valuable to you, whether that is a new book, a sporting event, or a day trip somewhere.
You have made changing your behavior automatic but not in a way that puts you to sleep by choosing a specific cue and then designing an appropriate, meaningful reward.
We can wake ourselves up instead of sleep-walking through the daily routines of life by doing things like choosing a reaction ahead of time (i.e., when you get a five-dollar bill and don’t want to save it) and focusing on our specific rewards. Reminding ourselves to make mindful choices instead of falling into the sleepy rut of a routine we don’t remember is a powerful way to create big changes in our lives.
As we come to the end of the year, it is only natural to start looking back, at both the good and bad habits we have formed. The Power of Habit is one way to take control over our habits for the better, making conscious, aware choices instead of knee-jerk reactions.
With the holidays approaching, consider The Power of Habit as a gift, or start a holiday book club. What habit might you start with?
Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr