Reading Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, can leave you full of excitement with the possibilities of changing and creating habits to reach goals in your life. You can also feel overwhelmed with how exactly to start your journey. After all, there is no one way to change a habit, and it won’t be accomplished overnight. Just as when we talked about a Slip Up to Success Plan, changing a habit is a process that isn’t always linear. Still, it’s a journey worth taking and I hope this guide helps get you started!
For those who haven’t read The Power of Habit, Duhigg breaks down how habits work by detailing the “habit loop”. As pictured above, a habit has 3 components; Cue, Routine, Reward. Let’s look at the common habit of brushing your teeth before bed; your cue is getting ready for bed (more specifically, maybe it’s washing your face, or changing into sleep wear), your routine – or, habit – is brushing your teeth, and your reward is the clean mouth feel and taste. By adulthood this habit has become so ingrained in your routine you hardly think about it. It’s just what you do.
Changing a habit focuses on only changing ONE thing; the routine. Big changes start with small changes. Try to change the cue, routine AND reward at one time and you’ll end up overwhelmed and unsure of why the new habit didn’t stick. Was it the cue that didn’t work or the reward or was the routine too complicated? By focusing on one small change you can master it.
Duhigg outlines the framework of changing a habit towards the end of the book:
1.Identify the routine
2. Experiment with rewards
3. Isolate the cue
4. Have a plan (Doesn’t it always start with a plan?)
Let’s work one out together so you can apply these principals to whatever habit you want to tackle. We’ll take one of mine; snacking after lunch on cereal.
Identify the Routine
The behavior of eating handfuls of sugary cereal after lunch is the habit I want to change . I know I’m nott hungry as I fix a satisfying lunch, one that fills me up and I enjoy eating. I resolve to not do it the next day, yet the next day I’ll put my dishes in the sink and go for a handful. But what’s my reward? Why do I need to snack on something? Am I not eating enough as my meal? Do I need something sweet? Am I not ready to get back to work yet?
Experiment with Rewards
Duhigg explains that rewards satisfy cravings, but that we often don’t know exactly what we’re craving. To figure out what you’re actually craving, you get to play scientist and test out different rewards/behaviors until you find one that leaves you satisfied. When the urge arises, I will test a new routine. Instead of grabbing cereal, I’ll get an apple then get back to work. The next day I’ll make some tea. The next day I’ll do a few minutes of yoga. The next day I’ll walk the dog. The next day I’ll browse one of my favorite blogs.
The purpose is to find something to replace this mindless munching with the same reward of satisfaction to get back to my day. If it’s that I’m hungry, an apple will do the trick. If it’s a need to be up and about, yoga will help. If it’s a change of scenery, walking the dog will satisfy me.
I’ll probably need to try a few different approaches over a few days so I will keep a pad of paper (or the worksheet following this post!) nearby and jot down my first thoughts – just a few words; full, refreshed, calm – after the experimental routine. This will bring me into the present moment and connect me to my feelings. Next, Duhigg suggests setting an alarm for 15 minutes. When the alarm sounds, I’m to reflect if I feel the urge to get cereal. If I ate an apple and 15 minutes later I still want some Lucky Charms, I must be craving the reward of sugar. If 15 minutes after reading a favorite blog, I feel ready to move on with my day, my craving must be some downtime for my brain before delving into another thing on my to-do list. With my handy notes I can remember exactly how I felt after each experiment which helps pinpoint what I enjoyed – or didn’t enjoy – about my theorized craving.
Isolate the Cue
For many habits the cue isn’t obvious and will take digging to find. To find my cue I’ll need to take a few more notes by noting the five categories nearly all habitual cues fall into:
Location, time, emotional state, other people, immediately preceding action
When my urge hits to grab a handful of cereal I will fill in all the categories which could look like this:
Emotional state: Content
Other people?: No one around
Immediately preceding action: Grabbed client binder
The next day may be this:
Emotional state: Bored
Other people?: Husband (worked from home, too)
Immediately preceding action: Started writing blog-post
And the next:
Emotional state: Little stressed
Other people?: No one around
Immediately preceding action: Opened email that need immediate response
While my timeframe is consistent with lunch, I know from my experiments that I’m not hungry for food since the apple didn’t satisfy me. The other constant is that I’m starting to work on something that needs my attention. My habit is triggered in a post-lunch slump by delving immediately back into work. I apparently need to give my mind more of a break before getting back to work since I’m eating out of avoidance.
Have a Plan
To break my habit, I need to come up with a plan before the habit loop starts. Since I need a mental refresher to avoid mindless munching, I have many options. My plan is to set an alarm for 15 minutes immediately after I finish lunch and do one of 2 things I found through my experiment that left me satisfied: Yoga and/or browsing my favorite blogs/sites.
My hope is that soon I won’t have to set an alarm and it will become part of my routine like brushing my teeth. There will be days it won’t work and there will be days where I look forward to the new routine. As long as the days it works outnumbers the days I don’t succeed, I’m making progress.
Here is a worksheet to help put your habits into context and begin your journey to a new routine!
Changing a habit is not quick, but with repetition you can adjust your routine. If you would like help discovering your habit loops or need someone in your corner when you slip up, let’s talk! My Health Coaching packages focus on behavior change and getting you closer to your ideal life.