How To Squash Bad Habits
Like many of us working in an office, Charles Duhigg used to get a craving for a treat every day in the afternoon. Unlike most of us, though, Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, figured out how to squash this habit.
Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, applied what he learned in researching his book to his own situation. Within nine months, he was 30 pounds lighter.
How'd he do it? He diagnosed his own "habit loop."
Habits, he discovered, are things we do almost unconsciously. Rather than actual decisions, they are behaviors that have become etched into our brains, specifically the part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Once developed, the habits are difficult to "uncode" from our neurology.
The good news, says Duhigg, is that "Any habit can be changed, it doesn't matter how old you are or how ingrained the behavior is." Even for mid-lifers, whose habits have been occurring for years, the same theory applies.
It's a matter of changing, rather than eradicating the habit, he says. "Every habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward," Duhigg says. "Something becomes a habit when your neurology associates a particular cue and a particular reward with a certain routine." The habit loop emerges when the cue causes an automatic anticipation of the reward.
For example, the cue for Duhigg and his snacking was the clock striking about 3:30 in the afternoon. The routine was going to the cafeteria to get a cookie. The reward, well, we'll get to that.
Experts he spoke with for the book told him the way to change his cookie habit was to diagnose his cues and rewards.
"I started paying attention to when this urge to have a cookie would hit me," he says. "I found it would always happen in the afternoon around 3:30, so that was the cue -- a certain time of day. Then I had to figure out what the reward was. Initially I thought the reward would just be the cookie itself. But the psychologists said, 'Well, no, a cookie is five or six rewards bundled into one and you have to figure out what it is.'"
If he was simply hungry, maybe an apple would work just as well. If he needed sugar as an energy boost, then maybe he could take a walk around the block instead. It turns out, it was neither of these.
"The reward for the behavior was that when I went up to the cafeteria I would see colleagues and chat with them and it was socialization that was driving the behavior," he says. "So when I figured that out I was able to create a new habit."
Instead of trotting to the cafeteria every afternoon, he stood up, went to the desk of a co-worker and chatted with the person for 15 or 20 minutes. Thus he created a new habit: "I gossip with them and then I'll go back to my desk and the cookie urge is completely gone."
His advice to anyone looking to change habits, whether in midlife or at any age, is to diagnose your behaviors, discovering the cues and the true rewards. Then, he says, "Choose a new behavior that will be triggered by the old cue and will deliver something similar to the old reward but as a new behavior."
I tested the theory with a few mini-experiments.
Exercise: Each day after dropping my daughter off at school, I'd make a beeline for the computer. But it bothered me I wasn't getting in exercise. Could I associate leaving the car drop-off line with working out? I realized my true reward was the feeling of accomplishment provided by immediately getting to work. So instead of automatically turning the computer on after walking in the door, I went into another room and did a 10-minute yoga routine. My reward was still achieved but in a way that allowed me to get exercise.
Productivity: After working on a writing assignment for a couple hours, I'd start surfing the web, dropping in on my favorite writer's forum, checking different email accounts, visiting pop-culture sites. But this was time better-spent working. The next time the urge to surf struck, I got up and sat on the front stoop for a few minutes. Upon returning I resumed working. My true reward wasn't to read email, but to have a mental break. My new behavior -- going outside for a few minutes -- resulted in the same reward, but with less time wasted. As a bonus, I was newly refreshed.
Now I'm looking closely at my routines, figuring out the cues and peeling back the layers of the rewards, in search of better habits all-around. Just as Duhigg's title suggests, it's a powerful feeling.
SecondAct contributor Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.