4 practical titbits about reforming your habits

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” ― Mark Twain #MondayMorningWakeUpCall

 Power of Habits

If he reads why don’t you?

I guess Charles Duhigg took Mark Twain’s quote rather seriously (or was just fed up with his wife’s habits) and thankfully wrote “The Power of Habits” for others to reform. I in turn am happily sharing my ‘3 minute quickie’ for all those who don’t have the habit of reading but want to develop it. Or develop or renounce any other habit for that matter.

This post (and the book) is not limited only to reading habits. Duh! You can read and share this (After all, your habits aren’t a problem, are they? It’s other people’s habits that are a pain) with anyone whose habits make you squirm and whose habits you would want reformed, whether it be being a slave to a nicotine or caffeine, having to compulsively stand on one leg at midnight or severely lacking all the 7 habits of highly successful people.

Here are my notes along with 4 of my key learnings on habits including a framework that might help them quit those annoying behaviors and develop lovable ones.

But first, what are habits?

Habits as they are technically defined in the book are: “The choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”

4 practical tit-bits about reforming your habits –

  1. Science of Habits – Habits are malleable
  • Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.
  • Habits follow a loop – cue, routine, reward.


Cue Routine Reward Cycle

The Science Behind Habits

  • Society, as embodied by our courts and juries, has agreed that some habits are so powerful that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices, and thus we’re not responsible for what we do. Example gambling. (However this does not exempt you from the legal or moral repercussion. Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it)
  1. Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.
  • Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.

(An aside outside of Charles Duhigg’s gyaan – I believe that the best way to learn and develop will power is through meditation practices. If practiced right then will power will no longer seem like having to ‘will’ yourself into habits or disciplines. Rather, they become a natural outcome, gracefully effortless rather than brute force)

  • Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things. Which is why if you’re spending up all your will power stopping yourself from punching your boss at work, it’s difficult to use the limited will power supply to control your diet or exercise at the end of the day.
  1. Tips to form a new habit
    • Focus on changing just one habit at first. Top of Form
    • Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a 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.
    • However a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
    • But even that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group (which is why AA is so successful)
    • It is easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there is something familiar at the beginning and end.
  2. Tips to changing a habit
    • Habits can be reshaped by simply understanding how habits work—learning the structure of the habit loop—makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.

Here’s a 4 step framework for changing a habit

Disclaimer: In the book Charles Duhigg uses his example of how he changed his habit of eating a calorie inducing cookie every afternoon. I have tried to break down a more burning (pun intended) problem of smoking which has for more complex layers. However, it may be a more helpful application of the problem if you buy into the method/framework and not get into semantics of the example per se.

  • Step 1 – Identify the routine
    • The routine is the most obvious aspect. It’s the behavior you want to change. In this case lighting a cigarette and smoking it.
    • Next some less obvious questions –
      • What’s the cue for this routine? Is it post a meal? Boredom? Need a break before plunging into another task?
      • What’s the reward? Is it the after taste? Is it the high from nicotine? Socializing with colleagues? Temporary distraction?
    • To figure this out you’ll need to do a little experimentation
  • Step 2 – Experiment with rewards
    • Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. This might take a few days or a week or even longer. During the period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change- think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.
    • On the 1st day of your experiment, when you feel the urge to smoke, adjust your routine so that it delivers a different reward. For instance, instead of taking a ‘smoke break’ go outside, walk around the block and then go back to the desk without smoking. The next day, try a cup of coffee. Then on another day you could walk over to a colleague and gossip for a few minutes and go back to your desk. Or pop in a nicotine flavored gum.
    • What you choose to do instead of smoking isn’t important. The point is to test different hypothesis to determine which craving is driving your routine.
    • As you test 4-5 different rewards, look for patterns and preferably jot down the 1st 3 things that come to mind immediately after your new routine.
    • Then set an alarm for 15 mins and ask yourself if you’re still feeling the urge for a smoke
    • By co-relating your experimental routines with the urge to smoke you should be able to identify the reward smoking is satisfying
  • Step 3 – Isolate the cue
    • Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of the 5 categories
      • Location (Where are you?)
      • Time (What time is it?)
      • Emotional state (What’s your emotional state?)
      • Other people (Who else is around?)
      • Immediately preceding action (What action preceded the urge?)
    • During this experimental phase, write down the answers to each of these 5 cues to identify common patterns
  • Step 4 – Have a plan
    • Once you’ve figured out your habit loop, you can change to a better routine (habit) by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving. You can do so with a plan, ie. ‘when I see a CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get REWARD
    • For instance, in the smoking case, if you figured that your cue for a smoke is a meal and the reward is an after taste of nicotine, you could work towards a loop that looks like ‘when I finish my meal (CUE), I will chew a nicotine flavored gum (ROUTINE) in order to get the after taste of tobacco (REWARD)

It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination. No one will quit smoking cigarettes simply because they sketch a habit loop.

Most importantly – you’ve got to BELIEVE you can change!

What habits have you recently changed? How? Would love to hear your stories and comments.

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