“Our lives change when our habits change.”
Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit”, deconstructs the science of habit formation. But the book is also great because it outlines a practical framework for changing habits. Once we are aware of its components, it is possible to tinker with the parts to effect change.
Sometimes we say that we need to completely eradicate a bad habit, but Duhigg states that the “Golden Rule of Habit Change” is that you can never completely get rid of a habit. You can only change the habit.
And here’s how you do it.
First, identify the routine involved in the habit. For example, I get up from whatever I’m doing (if I’m at my desk) to get a snack in the afternoon. If I know we have ice cream or yogurt bars in the freezer, I’ll head there. If not, I’ll grab some Hershey’s Kisses or some other sweet treat. It’s automatic and really hard to control, even though I’m conscious of what I’m doing.
The second step in the habit change framework is to experiment with the rewards. All habits have a reward attached to them, and the reward is powered by a craving. To determine what is driving the reward, Duhigg suggests experimenting with different rewards. In my first example, instead of walking to the freezer or to the pantry to get a sweet treat, I could modify the routine and insert a different reward. But it has to be something that offers a reward…it can’t be that I’ll go to the pantry and help myself to carrot sticks. That won’t work! After giving this some thought, I think going outside to pet my dog would be a suitable replacement reward.
Once you’ve identified alternative rewards, begin keeping a record of your thoughts when the urge strikes to do your normal routine. Duhigg suggests that you write down the first three thoughts, no matter how random, that enter your mind once you embark on the routine and return to whatever you were doing prior to the routine. Then, set a timer for 15 minutes and see how you feel. Did the craving for the sweet treat go away? Review your notes and repeat the process of fiddling with the rewards and recording your thoughts until you can isolate the craving that is driving your current routine.
The third step is to identify the cue. The cue is what prompts the routine, and can be hard to identify. Duhigg suggests writing down these five things as soon as you’re triggered to perform the habit routine: 1) where you are, 2) what time is it, 3) what is your emotional state, 4) who else is around, and 5) what action directly preceded the urge? Take note of these 5 items and compare them across the days you are keeping a record of. Then, it’ll be easier to identify the cue that is triggering the routine.
Finally, the last step is the have a plan. In the book, Duhigg wrote about a habit of his that was very similar to mine: snacking in the afternoon. Once he identified the cue (he felt an urge to eat a cookie between 3:30-4:00 p.m. every day), the routine (he walked over to the cafeteria to get the cookie), and the reward (a temporary distraction), he was able to attack this habit with a concrete plan. This is what he came up with: “At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”
It’s convenient that the example he uses in his book targets a specific habit that I’d like to change. I have virtually the same cue (urge to get up and get a snack every day in the late afternoon), routine (walk to the freezer or pantry and get a snack), and reward (temporary distraction). So, I wrote out a similar plan for myself:
“At 2:30 each work day, I’ll go outside and pet/play with my dog.” And I’ll set the alarm on my phone to do just that.
And remember that self-assessment we did in the last post? Keep that information in mind when thinking about the best way to attack your habit change efforts.