How To Change Habits

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Nail biting, smoking, junk food: when we think of ‘habits’, we usually think of bad ones. And falling foul of these bad habits is both something we’re all guilty of, and one which we spend huge amounts of time, energy and money attempting to curb.

The key to breaking them, however, is understanding why our habits exist. Business expert Charles Duhigg explains to us: “Every habit – no matter how simple or complex — has the same structure, which we call 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 or mental, or emotional behaviour. Finally, there is a reward. Once you understand how habit loops work, you can start changing them.”

For his new book, The Power Of Habit, Duhigg spoke with behavioural and neuroscientists to research the scientific discoveries behind our habits, and how successful people and businesses use them for their own advantage. What he found, was that you can never just go cold turkey to get rid of a bad habit. Instead, the secret to breaking a habit is to change it, inserting a new routine into your ‘habit loop’ instead of the one you want to extinguish.

Define Your Cue
Duhigg wanted to curb his habit for eating his daily afternoon chocolate chip cookie. So naturally, he took his dilemma to habitual behaviour scientists. “The scientists told me that, first you need to define the cue and the reward to change the behaviour,” he explains, “most cues fall into one of five buckets: a time, a place, a certain emotional state, the presence of other people or a preceding action.”

The simplest way to identify his cue, Duhigg found, was by writing them down each time he felt the craving, “it became clear that I was cued by certain time of day, around 3:15 to 3:45,” he says.

Figure Out The Real Reward
It’s easy to say his reward for buying his daily biscuit was his delicious biscuit, but Duhigg didn’t take this at face value. “I ran experiments,” he says, “One time I took a walk around the block. Or instead of the cookie, I’d have an apple or a glass of water. But each time, I would talk to my colleagues and I would socialise, and then it became clear that it was the socialising and not the cookie that really was important.”

The cookie cravings went away if Duhigg just had a chat and skipped the snack. “So now I look around for someone to go and gossip with for 10 minutes and I don’t have the cookie urge anymore,” he adds. The afternoon habit remains, but he’s swapped the action of eating a snack for something better which leaves him with the same reward he found before.

Replace One Aspect Of The Routine
So to break a habit, we need to instead create a new one. “It should be triggered by the old cue, and deliver the old reward,” says Duhigg, “That’s the rule: if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine. Almost any behaviour can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.”

It’s a robust way to fight one of the most commonly cited bad habits, smoking. “A smoker usually can’t quit unless they find some activity to replace cigarettes. If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself, do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, a way to socialise? If you smoke because you need stimulation, some caffeine in the afternoon, studies indicate, can increase the odds you’ll quit. Over three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs — a piece of Nicorette, a series of push ups, taking a few minutes to stretch and relax — makes it more likely they will quit successfully.”

Change Your Habits, Change Your Work

Habits which have a knock-on effect are known as ‘keystone habits’. As well as breaking you out of a bad habit in the first place, they have been proven to typically have a chain reaction on improving other aspects of your life, too.

Like creating the habit of exercise, explains Duhigg. “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they often start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and getting to work earlier. They smoke less, and show more patience. 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.”

Companies Use Them, Too
Using a habit to establish a further chain of positive routines, has even been harnessed by whole companies, too. Just like schools implement self-discipline habits into their curriculums, companies also see the benefits: “Starbucks has spent millions of dollars developing training programs to help employees build the habits they need for success within the company,” Duhigg reveals. “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a 5-year-old soccer star,” Dartmouth University psychologist Todd Heatherton explains, “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run 15 laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”

In business, understanding the habits of your customers is just as valuable, says Duhigg, “Almost every major retailer, including Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, your bank, and hundreds of others have ‘predictive analytics’ departments devoted to figuring out consumers’ habits.”

“At Target, for instance, executives build sophisticated computer programs to analyse shoppers’ habits, and then use that information to figure out what they want to buy. If you use your Target credit card to purchase a box of ice lollies once a week, usually around 6:30 p.m on a weekday, and mega-sized bin bags twice a year like clockwork, Target will determine that you have kids at home, tend to stop for shopping on your way back from work, and have a house with a garden. It will look at your other shopping patterns, and notice that you sometimes buy cereal, but never purchase milk — which means that you must be buying it somewhere else. So the supermarket will send you vouchers for money off of milk, as well as school supplies, garden furniture, and — since it’s likely you’ll want to relax after a long day at work — beer. The company will guess what you habitually buy, and then try to convince you to get it at Target,” habits are everywhere. Most decisions you make, argues Charles, aren’t decisions at all, but cultivated habits. And understanding the power of those can be both beneficial for you — and just as lucrative for business.

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