This is a continuation in my series about habits. You can read the 2 articles preceding this one by clicking the links below:
If you haven’t yet, you should really read the 2nd article before reading this one. This will give you a firm understanding of the habit loop and the opportunity to understand your own habits a little better.
This article is my expansion on the theories presented in The Power of Habit.
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.”
– Benjamin Franklin
In this article we are going to look at how you can change your habits. This is a very personalized endeavor and there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions. I’m going to do my best to break it down for you, but it is ultimately up to you to make it happen in your own life.
I’m not here to sell you pipe dreams or blow smoke up your ass – personal development is challenging. Just like anything else that makes us stronger. However, I have always found it much easier to take on a challenge when I am well-informed about it.
Framework for Success
Before attempting to change your habits, you first need to get a better grasp of the system that you are trying to change.
The Habit Loop
You are already familiar with the habit loop. Hopefully you have practiced breaking down some of your key habits into the 3 stages of the habit loop.
I wanted to include the photo of the habit loop again to help you visualize the process.
Things to Keep in Mind
The following are conclusions based on all of the behavior science research we have to date. You might not agree with all of these concepts, but they have been well-documented and you should at least keep them in mind.
- Habits cannot be eliminated, they must be replaced.
The most significant determining factor in overcoming drug addiction in clinical settings is having the belief that change is possible. This is why you see so many former drug addicts turn to religion and why programs like AA/NA work well for some people – they foster a belief in a system that can help them.
- Over 200 studies have confirmed that willpower is like a muscle. It has a limited amount of strength, but you can exercise it and make it stronger. On the other hand, you can neglect it and make it weaker. This is why our willpower tends to break down at night, because we have literally used up our willpower for the day at that point. To get yourself to start going to the gym after work you will need to conserve some willpower throughout the day.
- Habits allow us to do a thing with difficulty the first time. After that it becomes easier and easier each time, until it is semi-mechanical and you no longer have to even think about it.
- Any habit can be changed. This is a fact that has been proven time and time again. You simply have to disrupt the pattern.
- Changing habits is painful. It is difficult and intimidating. You have to accept that there is a certain level of pain you must endure before the change is complete. It’s completely normal to feel pain, you are not alone. Pain is a good sign, it means that change is happening. Embrace it.
We are not the victim of bad habits. Either intentionally or not, we created them at one point.
Habits are a system deeply ingrained in our psyche and play a huge role in how we operate as humans. We are literally creatures of habit.
How to Manipulate the Habit Loop in Our Favor
There’s a short answer and a long answer.
The short answer is that we keep the cue and the reward the same, but replace the routine. That’s the ideal scenario. However, it’s rarely that simple.
The reason why is that the routine isn’t always the problem. The problem could be the cue or the reward.
Our habits are typically driven by a craving. A craving for a particular reward.
Step 1: Identify the Routine
The routine is usually the most obvious aspect of the habit loop.
It’s the actual behavior that we want to change.
Let’s say that every day after work, you stop and grab a quick snack from a fast food restaurant on the way home. The snack doesn’t keep you full for very long, but it’s high in calories and low in nutrients. Doing this every day has caused you to gain an extra 10 lbs of fat over the course of the past year. Eating the fast food meal is the routine.
Step 2: Experiment with Rewards
Rewards satisfy our cravings.
The reason why our body produces such strong cravings are to get rewards. Our bodies have trusted us to only make good decisions in the first place. This means our bodies trusted us to create habits with GOOD rewards.
We abused the system…
Cravings are a survival mechanism.
Hunger tells us to eat.
Sex drive tells us to reproduce.
Cravings are meant to be unbearable. They are meant to be extremely persuasive. Our desires for food/water, shelter and sex have kept us alive all of these generations.
The body does not discriminate. If you have created a habit and provided a reward that pleased you, even if you feel guilty afterwards, your body has followed through on its end of the deal and created a craving for you.
I personally get a craving to go to the gym. I’ve created that habit. I’m thankful for that craving.
As a kid, at my grandparents house, I would always eat a big bowl of ice cream before bed. To this day I crave sweets at night. I accept responsibility for that habit, but I don’t appreciate that craving very much.
Back to our example, you need to experiment with the possible rewards for eating fast food every day after work. Think of all the possible reasons you could be rewarded for that routine. Then replace the routine with something else that also provides the same reward. Each time, wait about 15 minutes and see if the craving is still there or if it is gone. When you’ve found a new behavior that eases the craving, you have successfully identified the reward.
Are you just hungry? Well that’s easy, you could replace that meal with ANY meal.
Is it the convenience? Try preparing meals in advance that you can heat up quickly.
Is there something at home you are avoiding? You could find a million other things to do to kill some time before going home.
Are you attracted to the nice young lady at the drive-through window? Ask her out already! (And start seeing her outside of work)
You get the idea. Keep testing until you figure it out.
Now you’ve identified the routine and the reward.
For the example, let’s say it was the convenience of not having to cook.
Step 3: Identify the Cue
The research shows that almost all habitual cues fit into 1 of these 5 categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately Preceding Action
Identifying the cue is similar to identifying the reward, it requires a little testing.
Each time you sense the craving, jot down a description of each of the 5 categories. Do this for several days.
Using our example again, does the craving hit while you are still at work or when you are in your car? What time is it? Are you feeling tired, stressed, etc? Are you alone or with a particular person? What did you do right before you felt the craving?
To save time, I’ll say that after several days you noticed the following:
- The location was always while driving a particular route home
- The time was usually between 5:15 and 5:45
- Your mood varied
- You were always alone
- What you did (changed radio station, answered phone call, etc) varied
So the only constant variables were being alone and the route you chose to drive home.
You have concluded that when you drive past Chik-fil-a, you gotta have it.
You have now identified the cue (trigger), the routine (behavior you want to change), and the reward (that you are craving).
Step 4: Create a Plan
At this point you understand that it isn’t the fried chicken you want, it’s a convenient meal. You know that you will get the craving for it when you drive your usual route home.
Now you can create a plan to deal with this.
You could change your route home to try to avoid triggering the craving. But depending on your commute that might end up being a pain in the ass.
Or you could change the routine and get the same reward. When the craving hits, choose to stop somewhere with healthier options. Or try cooking meals in advance that you can heat up as soon as you get home.
Whatever it takes to satisfy the reward of not taking too much time to cook dinner.
This is a hypothetical habit and they won’t always be this simple.
The point is that you want to break the habit down as simply as possible. Then find a way to attack it.
Form a plan and trust in yourself to see it through.
Obviously this is all easier said than done.
If there was an easy solution, you would have done it by now. Or someone would be marketing the hell out of it. Either way, you’d know about it.
The truth is, it comes down to willpower and discipline.
You know how habits work. You know how to identify them. You have all of the ingredients besides execution.
Your life is in your own hands, whether you accept that or not.
Now make it happen.
Until Next Time,
99 Habits For Those Who Want it All
This FREE guide includes 99 action steps to get in shape, feel excited to start the day, and accomplish more in less time!
What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or have any thoughts to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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