At the beginning of each new year I vow to give up drinking Diet Coke. Intellectually, I know it contains some nasty ingredients and I should drink more water. But I can’t. It’s a habit, a bad habit. Given that we are at the start of 2020, I thought it was time to investigate what might be blocking me from vanquishing this habit.
Researching the differences between habits and routines, I discovered some patterns of behaviour are sensible and productive. If we had lives with no structure and no predictability, things would be too chaotic to manage, wouldn’t they? Routines like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day to ensure our eight or nine hours sleep are commendable. Taking our recyclables to the appropriate containers, accompanying our dogs out for a walk each morning and thanking the bus driver at the end of each journey are the best sorts of routines, which foster our wellbeing. Habits such as flossing, smiling when we greet people, practicing gratitude, concentrating on the good things in our lives and cleaning up after our own messes are constructive habits.
But how about the not so beneficial one?
I asked a bunch of friends to confess some of their unsavoury, unhealthy and, well, unappealing habits. Here is what I heard:
|Walking around whilst staring at her phone||Indulging in too much junk food||Skipping breakfast|
|Stereotyping||Neglecting teeth brushing||Gambling|
Lying in the sun to tan
|Swearing||Stay up late at night watching Netflix and YouTube clips||
Neglecting to wash his hands
|Overspending his way into credit card debt||Speak negatively to herself||Keeping other people waiting||
Gossiping and disclosing other people’s secrets
|Worrying about everything…even catastrophising||Ignoring advice to exercise||Making fun of his younger brother||
Hoarding clothes and shoes
What actually is a habit?
‘A habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern…something you do automatically… Every habit – no matter how simple or complex – has the same structure called the “habit loop.” There is a cue, a trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional behavior. Finally, there is a reward.’
What to do? I needed first to arm myself with information.
It was clear that habits are learned behaviours which could be unlearned. We need to be aware of how our habits work by identifying the cues and rewards because it is possible, amazingly, to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the decision- making! Well, that’s frightening!
Habits are not necessarily evil or destructive. Habits can serve a purpose. Constantly relying on our willpower to make a thousand decisions each day would be simply impossible. Habits are a way of reducing variability helping us to be more consistent. There is a tale from the Barack Obama presidency that he only ever wore grey or blue suits because he wanted to have fewer minor decisions to make each day. This gave him greater ‘mental space’ to dedicate his finite time to the internationally important issues of his leadership. Being fatigued from making insignificant decisions could have sapped all his energy.
The other thing to know about divorcing an unproductive habit is that we must find the motivation to change. It’s also clear that it is the cravings which drive our behaviours. It’s worth reflecting upon what we get out of maintaining our habits? Rewards can be at their most powerful because they satisfy cravings. (Do I crave the sugary ‘hit’ of Diet Coke?) Imagine craving your Maths teacher’s praise and sacrificing time on your unproductive habit of playing video games to revise Maths problems. If your Maths teacher commended your excellent effort on your test, you might wallow in this glory in front of your peers, and feel a terrific sense of accomplishment. This would then replace the ‘reward’ (such as earning a higher score than your classmate) which previously came from playing video games.
Socrates famously said: “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” and this is what is required to begin battling habits. Once we’re aware of how our habits work, and we are attuned to the cues and rewards, we’re on the way to gaining back control over habits. If we want to consume less junk food or empty calories, we need to figure out whether it’s actually the McDonald’s sundae we are craving or the company of our friends after school. Is the ‘reward’ satisfying hunger or is it actually about hanging out with buddies?
Arming ourselves with the knowledge that ‘Habit loops’ consist of: cue → routine behavior → reward (meaning we’re more likely to repeat the habit) is crucial. We all know that behaviors with affirming consequences, such as affection (hugs, kisses, a smile, a pat on the back, or an arm around the shoulder), praise (‘I admire the way you persisted in solving that problem’), attention and activities (like going to the movies, playing a favourite game) tend to be repeated until they become automatic. Self- awareness, then, is vital to determine our motivation. It’s also wise to wrestle with negative thoughts like ‘A chocolate is the only way I can make it through the rest of the day’, which may sabotage us.
Being aware of what Charles Duhigg, author of ‘The Power of Habit’ calls ‘keystone habits’, “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives”, is advantageous. ‘Keystone habits’ create a domino effect that change every area of our lives; small habits can have a massive impact. Making our habits something we look forward to is the trick. If the habit results in fulfilment and it is easy, then it is more likely to ‘stick’. A great example of a ‘keystone habit’ is exercise. When we start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, we often start changing other, unrelated patterns in our lives. What tends to happen is that, when we exercise, we start eating better and getting to school/work earlier. We feel less stress, grow more patient and even spend less money. Exercise, as a ‘keystone habit’, triggers widespread change.
Other experts in this field of habits, including James Clear, author of ‘Atomic Habits’, provide valuable, practical advice for those of us seriously contemplating ditching lousy habits and cultivating new ones. They advocate that we:
- Figure out, specifically, what we want to achieve. What are our intentions?
- Are mindful of our environments (Are there too many Coke vending machines near school which tempt me?)
- Start very small. Don’t slip into the trap of attempting to make enormous changes immediately-just take baby steps. Be patient.
- Celebrate our achievements throughout the journey and invite our friends to cheer us along
- Reward ourselves.
It’s an adventure. Let’s begin!
3 Habits That Will Change Your Life
10 Habits of All Successful People
A Habit You Simply MUST Develop
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
How to Break Habits (from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg)
How to Build Good Habits: A Playbook for Lasting Change
How to Make Good Habits Stick: 7 Secrets From Research
Why New Habits Are So Hard To Stick To