So much of our lives are lived on autopilot. We go about each day pretty much the same way we lived the previous day, and likely how will live tomorrow. From our morning routine to our drive to work, to our coffee break mid-afternoon, to dinner with friends in the evening, our habits control many of our daily decisions.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Routines help us streamline the mundane decisions we make throughout the day. But some habits are downright destructive. They can cause us to spend ourselves into financial ruin, eat ourselves into the grave, or to accept a life that is less than our best. And habits can do all of this quietly, while we barely notice.
But what if we could harness habits to improve our lives? What if we could change existing bad habits and even create new positive habits that improved every aspect of our lives?
Those are the bold claims in a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. The book offers some excellent insights and strategies on how we can change our habits and create new ones.
1. The Mouse and the Maze
Imagine a T-shaped maze. A rat is placed in the bottom of the T in front of a door. At the top left of the T is a piece of chocolate. A chime sounds, the door opens, and the rat begins to sniff its way toward the top of the T. It’s a simple maze, and the rat soon finds the chocolate.
What was going through the rat’s brain as it searched for the chocolate? Using electrodes, scientists learned that the rat’s brainwaves where very active when it was searching and when it found the chocolate. No surprise in either situation.
But when the rat was run through the maze again and again, it got better and faster at finding the chocolate. More significant was that brain activity decreased as the rat became more comfortable with the process. Finding the chocolate had become a habit. Not only did the brain activity diminish while the rat searched for the chocolate, but it also diminished when it found it.
From the book–
As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less. . . . Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted. The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all.
The scientists began breaking the process down to a habit loop, and they found that it has three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
2. The Habit Loop
In the experiment, the cue was the clicking sound; the routine was navigating the maze, while the chocolate was the reward. This habit loop can be found in our own lives if we look hard enough.
As an example, I like to take a coffee break in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter if I’m at the office or working at home. At a certain time each day I need to make that Starbucks run. In my case, the cue is time based, the routine is getting out of my environment, and having the mocha at a coffee shop is the reward. I can apply that to all kinds of habits in my own life, whether it’s finances, exercise, nutrition, and so on.
Once we identify a habit loop in our own lives, we can begin to change it.
However, even these habits are delicate. When a fast food restaurant closes down, the families that previously ate there will often start having dinner at home, rather than seek out an alternative location. Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, through, we can change the routines.
And that brings us to what Duhigg calls the golden rule of habit change.
3. The Golden Rule of Habit Change
If you want to change a habit, focus on the routine. The first step is to identify the three elements of the habit loop. Then work to change the routine while keeping the cue and reward the same.
How does that work in everyday life?
Think through the habits you want to change. In my coffee break example, is the reward really a mocha, or a change in my routine? Or is it just a hot beverage? I can experiment with different rewards. The actual reward isn’t always obvious.
So the takeaway is that you identify the true reward – and make changes in it if necessary – then you can change the routine used to get it. In my case, a mocha isn’t good for you, so I’ve been experimenting with hot tea and coffee, and it’s providing similar rewards for me.
The key is this–it’s much easier to change a routine than try to quit something cold turkey. As Duhigg explains–
And we know that habits are most malleable when the golden rule of habit change is applied: if we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough.
Attempts to give up snacking, for instance, will often fail unless there’s a new routine to satisfy old cues and reward urges. A smoker usually can’t quit unless she finds some activity to replace cigarettes when her nicotine craving is triggered.
Now if you are thinking this all sounds too easy, you’re right. There’s another important ingredient–belief. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of the group.”
4. The Power of Belief
Belief is critical. You have to believe that you can lose weight, that you can exercise, or that you can save for retirement to effectively change a habit.
Duhigg uses AA as an example:
“At some point, people in AA look around the room and think, if it worked for that guy, I guess it can work for me,” said Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the alcohol research group. ‘There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.“
If you see other people doing what you want to do, or what you hope to do, it can help you accomplish it, too. A good example is the 4-minute mile. At one time it was thought to be impossible for a human being to run a mile in under four minutes. Then in 1954 Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. What once seemed impossible, was again accomplished just two months later. Since then the record has been lowered by almost 17 seconds.
That’s the power of belief. It can come from faith, a small group, from a community, or simply changing the information you put into your head through the books you read or the websites you frequent.
5. Starting New Habits—focus on the cue
There is a difference between starting a new habit and changing an old one. While the routine is key to changing a habit, the key to starting new habits is the cue.
Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with the workout plan if they choose a specific cue, such as running as soon as they get home from work, and a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt free television. Research on dieting says creating new food habits requires a predetermined queue – such as planning menus in advance – and simple rewards for dieters when they stick to their intentions.”
Anyone can use this basic formula to create habits of her or his own. Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
6. Keystone Habits
Not all habits are created equal. Researchers have found that some habits can effect change in multiple areas of our lives. And the connections are not always obvious.
For example, if one wanted to create a habit of budgeting, starting an exercise program would probably not be the first idea to come to mind. Yet it might be the best thing you can do:
Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island research. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
Here are some other examples from the book:
Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.
Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.
It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.
How do you identify good keystone habits? Think small. You want to focus on small wins, because they spill over into other areas of your life:
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
Never dismiss those small wins. They’re the beginning of keystone habits, and have powerful ability to transform your life.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of changing habits. You may need to experiment, and be ready to fail a few times. Not everything you try will work. Even identifying the cues and rewards of an existing habit can take time.
Work on one habit at a time. Pick something that’s relatively small, and master that. From there you’ll have the power to make changes in bigger areas of your life.