Breaking Bad Habits. How do our habits work?

“The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.” – Charles Duhigg.

Everyone has a few habits they would like to change, but often the usual reminders just don’t work! Anyone who struggles with eating unhealthy foods, or maintaining regular sessions at the gym will be able to relate.

In “The Power of Habit”, award winning reporter Charles Duhigg writes about how some people struggle to achieve their goals, and how others are able to overcome hurdles to become a success. Duhigg examines how habits work, how we create new habits, and why some of us are able to transform our lives. This article breaks down the key takeaways for you!

How do our habits work? Every habit can be broken down into a loop, that is made up of a cue, routine and reward. Here’s a snazzy illustration of the habit loops.

Here is a classic example.

Mary’s cue every Monday afternoon is the clock striking 3.30pm after her weekly meeting with her difficult manager Steve. The routine can be as simple as making a cup of tea and having a slice of chocolate cake baked by Judy from Marketing for afternoon tea. Look, we all know how delicious good chocolate cake can be so the reward is a no brainer. Mary sits down with Judy to eat cake, drink a restorative cup of tea and talk about her meeting.

When the brain craves the reward of chocolate cake, the habit of having a slice becomes automatic. It is difficult to break a bad habit because the brain can’t figure out which is a bad or good habit!

Want to learn how to banish a bad habit?

Step 1 – Identify your cue. This can be a certain time (hello three-thirtyitis), place (work), mental state (frustrated), people (Judy) and anything you were doing beforehand (meeting with Steve). Identify these key cues and you will know what sets the stage for your bad habit.

Step 2 – What is the routine you need to change? This should be easy as it is the bad behaviour and habit you wish to change. Ask yourself why it is important to make that change.

Step 3 – Change your rewards! Instead of that sweet chocolate cake, how about a reward that will satisfy the real craving? After Mary’s meeting, perhaps the real reward was to have a supportive conversation with a colleague. Mary could also change the snack to a healthy one, try a piece of fruit instead!

Step 4 – Create a plan. Identify your plan and write it down. Mary can say, “If I feel the urge to eat chocolate cake, then I’ll go for a walk around the block with Judy”. This simple change can circumvent your usual routine and stop you from maintaining your bad habit by starting a new, healthier habit. This way, Mary can still have her catch up with Judy without the cake.

Of course changing habits take some real work. Don’t be discouraged if you forget your new routine and go back to your old habits. Keep changing your routine, be aware of your habit loop and soon you won’t even have to think about it.