Habits: How They Work and How to Make them Work to your Advantage
It’s 5:45 AM on a Thursday morning. I get out of my bed, take a shower, and brush my teeth. I then get dressed walk to my car, back up out of the driveway take a left followed by a right and then another left. I go inside Dunkin Donuts and order two sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches on English muffins and a large iced cold brew coffee, black. This past week I walked out and I stopped myself. I came to a crazy realization. I do this EVERY Thursday morning without even being aware of it. I just went through an hour of my life and I haven’t even turned my brain on until I take my first sip of coffee. I have been doing this for five months now and I can’t believe it! How did this happen? What started this This, right here my friends, is a definition of a habit.
Coffee, the nectar of the gods!
Since reading The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg I have learned an enormous amount of my daily life is affected by my habits. The basic format to creating a habit is what Duhigg calls the habit loop. This loop consists of three steps; the cue, or a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, a routine that can by physical or mental, complex or simple, and finally a reward that helps your brain decide whether the loop is worth remembering for the future. Eventually, the cue and the reward become intertwined, making us anticipate and crave the reward every time the cue presents itself. When habits emerge, the brain stops fully participating in decision making, stops working so hard, and diverts attention to other tasks. This is why it is so easy for me to go to Dunks every Thursday.
Let’s use my Thursday coffee run ritual as an example of the habit loop. The cue is waking up and getting out of bed. The routine is a quick shower, brushing my teeth, and trying to get dressed simultaneously and driving to the coffee shop before I drive way too fast to get to work on time. The reward for waking up early four days in a row is two greasy sandwiches that I had made for me (food always tastes better when you don’t have to cook it) and an oversized coffee that keeps me caffeinated for the long day to come. I wouldn’t consider this my best habit but nonetheless it is a prime example.
Here are many pros about having habits; it makes life easier, takes the thinking out of things and saves us energy, and they can make us healthy if implemented correctly. One major con to a habit is that they can be difficult to break. Habits are encoded to ancient parts (particularly the basal ganglia) of our brain and never really leave us. This is why alcoholics and people who try diets “fall off the wagon” and indulge in their old ways even after being good for years. This tends to happen when people stray from their routine, particularly during stressful periods. Also, the brain is unable to differentiate between good habits and bad habits that may pose as a vice at times.
So now we know a bit about habits and how they work, the real question is how can we replace our bad habits (being sedentary) and make them good habits (becoming active). The first step is to simply become aware of all your habits. To do this take a week and instead of being automatic, slow down and ask yourself why do I do this? What initiates this? What benefits do I receive from doing this? And write it down. Next, spend the weekend reflecting upon your habits, what works, what you wish to improve upon. Finally devise a plan focusing on the habit you wish to change the most (AKA your keystone habit).
Keystone habits explain how we think, act, eat, sleep, and communicate with each other. This type of habit transforms everything in your daily life and relies on finding your key priorities, thus making it your first and most important habit change. So let’s say for example we want to start exercising more and be healthier. The best way to start a new habit or change an old one (sedentism) is to change your routine. Routines make your brain turn off. To modify a habit you must identify a specific cue that will trigger a routine and clearly define the reward in order to change the habit must change your typical routine and find alternatives and to be self-conscious enough to make these changes. Once the keystone habit is established, this can set off a cascade of events in which better habits fall in place.
In the case of my habits, I like to prepare everything the night before so I can minimize the thinking in the morning and just get up and just do what I need to get done. This can also work to your advantage too. By leaving a t-shirt, shorts, and pair of sneakers in your car it is impossible to make an excuse for not going to the gym whether you decide to get up early or go after work, the clothes will always be there and the excuses are minimal. I know it’s difficult at first but once you get going you’ll have a tough time stopping. There are many people that wait outside the gym everyday at 5:30 AM to get their training in and you can too. Your body will eventually get into this rhythm of waking up early that you’ll wake before your alarm goes off. Once a keystone habit like regular exercise is established, other habits will give rise, almost without realizing it. For example since you started exercises you’ve noticed that you stay away from fast food restaurants and are choosing healthier alternatives when you go out to eat so you can maintain the results you’ve earned through hard work and stay feeling and looking good.
Trying to change a habit certainly isn’t easy. It takes conscious awareness and a lot of self-evaluation, which isn’t always an easy thing to do. But if you truly desire to change your lift for the better, breaking bad habits and forming new ones is one of the best ways to transform yourself. Please feel free to contact me with any question or if you need help changing your habits.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Penguin Random House, 2012. Print.
Written by: Brandon Drinan