One morning, I did a meditation session in which the teacher emphasized the importance of self-awareness.
For example, when I brush my teeth, I am aware of brushing my teeth. When I breathe, I am aware that I breathe, and so on.
It wasn’t easy at all! For instance, while I was preparing my breakfast, I realized that I was in automatic mode. I wasn’t consciously acting, neither in the preparation process nor while I was eating.
I thought it would be a simple exercise, but I was wrong.
So, I decided to dig deeper into the subject and understand why I couldn’t act consciously. I did some research and found a stunning figure.
A study led by Duke University in 2006 showed that more than 40% of our daily actions are not based on actual conscious decisions but on habits.
This number sparked my curiosity and I got Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Charles is the specialist and author of reference on this topic. You’ll be hearing about him a lot throughout this post.
The intention is for you to master habit change, which I believe is essential during our way search process.
And for us to get there, we need to better understand how habits work. A good start is the figure given by Duke University. If 40% of what we do is not controlled, how free are we then?
Table of Contents
The role of habits in our daily life
Most of the choices we make every day and the actions we take are not the result of fully conscious processes. They are habits.
In the beginning, we act in consciousness. But later on, the behavior becomes automatic.
The crazy part is that these habits have a huge impact on our health, happiness, and productivity. And such an impact can be for the better or for the worse.
A friend of mine used to smoke a lot. He had no pleasure when smoking in the morning at 7 am. However, he’d say it was his morning routine: A cigarette with coffee. He could not stop.
Habits are so strong that they can deprive us of any rationality. They can even lead us to do things we don’t like at all.
Smoking in the morning at 7 am is quite disgusting, and my friend didn’t even appreciate it, so why do it in the first place?
Because he was a prisoner of his habits.
Pretty scary, right?
Are we in control of ourselves?
The answer is yes and no. So easy always!
Our habits deprive us of our free will. But, fortunately, we can change them!!
The key to habit change is understanding how habits work.
“It is a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose”Chares Duhigg
We’re not always aware that the actions we take are born from habits, instead of reason. But, when we become aware of them, we can achieve habit change and mold our routines any way we see fit.
Let’s be realistic. Changing our habits is not a piece of cake.
Otherwise, our world would be so much easier! But with a little understanding of the habit mechanism + a lot of determination, it is possible.
So, how do you master habit change?
We’ll get there, but you need to understand its dynamics first.
How do habits work?
A habit is created by our brains. It happens when it turns a sequence of repetitive actions into an automatic procedure.
It’s called chunking, and it intervenes at the root of habit formation.
There are dozens (if not hundreds) of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. For instance, you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth.
But why does the brain create behavioral chunks?
Our brain is constantly looking for ways to work as little as possible. When habits emerge, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.
But is it due to pure laziness you might ask?
Well, not really. The brain is actually being smart. By creating habits, it clears its workload and allocates resources in tasks that require more effort than brushing your teeth.
“Without habit loops, our brains would shut down overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life“Charles Duhigg
So, it is normal and even necessary for habits to exist.
How new habits are born?
Cue, reward, and routine
In America, early in the 20th century, people were hardly brushing their teeth. Er!
Only 7% of Americans had a tube of toothpaste at home. It had even become a priority concern for the American government.
Just a few years later, for everyone’s relief, this figure exploded to 65%.
A name behind this crazy trend: Claude Hopkins.
He was one of the pioneers of modern-day advertisement and found triggers to convince consumers to use his products.
Hopkins turned toothpaste into a national habit through 2 aspects:
First – Finding a simple and obvious cue: The cue is the trigger for the behavior.
Hopkins found that people who don’t brush their teeth have a film over them, which makes their smile look unclean. He invited people to feel the film with their tongues in his ads. That’s the trigger.
Second – Clearly define the reward: It’s how your brain decides whether to store that pattern for further use.
In Hopkins case, brushing their teeth with his product would remove the film and result in a beautiful smile.
In addition to these 2 aspects, there’s a third one: The routine.
This is the act itself. In the example above, this would be brushing your teeth.
Habits are born when there are a cue, a routine, and a reward.
Finally, there’s an element that, in addition to the cue, keeps habits from occurring over and over again: The craving. And that’s what we’ll talk about next.
The power of cravings
Habits create excitement through the anticipation of the reward.
As we associate the cues with rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts what Charles Duhigg calls “The Habit Loop”.
For instance, when a smoker sees a pack of cigarettes (cue) his brain anticipates the pleasure of nicotine (reward).
When I see a bar of chocolate (cue) my brain anticipates the sugar high (reward)!
The danger is that sometimes anticipation is so strong that it leads to obsessive craving, also called addiction. When the routine is malicious, the impact is highly negative.
On a more positive note though, craving may also be a vehicle for creating virtuous habits.
Charles Duhigg gives us a good example in this front:
In 2002, researchers studied 266 individuals who worked out at least 3 times per week.
Many of them started doing sports spontaneously. But the reason they continued and it became a habit was because of the reward they started craving.
92% of participants said they exercised because they crave for endorphin (happiness hormone), which the body releases after a sports session.
Doing sports, became a habit only when the brain started expecting the rewards.
A cue an a reward alone aren’t enough.
All this leaves us with a lesson: Craving can also be used to create beneficial habits. And that’s what we wanna aim for.
For instance, I work hard because I crave for reading your feedback saying that these posts are being helpful.
Creating habits in action
Now that you know how habits emerge, let’s use the formula: cue + reward + craving + routine to create yours!
Want to start meditating?
- Choose a cue, such as a stressful situation in your personal or professional life.
- Pick a reward that’s directly linked to the routine, such as a feeling of calmness and serenity. In a biological level, this would be your cortisol levels going down.
- Then crave that feeling of tranquility. Anticipate those low levels of cortisol.
- Your routine will be a 15-minute meditation session.
- Eventually, that craving will make it easier to meditate 15 min in the face of stress and it will end up becoming a habit sooner than later!
Do you want to try a new eating habit?
In his book, Charles Duhigg talks about a survey involving more than 6,000 people who had lost more than 30 pounds in a short timeframe.
The most successful people focused on a specific reward to maintain their diet. Something they chose carefully and really wanted for themselves. For example, a new swimsuit or a new pair of jeans.
When they were feeling tempted to cheat, the craving for the reward outweighed the temptation to drop the diet.
According to Duhigg, craving drives habits. And once you understand how to generate a craving, you will be able to easily create a new habit.
Mastering habit change: How to transform a new habit?
Now, you understand how you can create a new habit. But how can you transform an existing one?
There are 2 golden rules to know if you want to be a habit change master.
First rule: Only change the routine
So habit is a 3-step loop: Cue, routine, and reward.
But we can’t change the 3 of them.
Instead, the secret recipe to change a bad habit is:
- Use the same cue
- Provide the same rewards
- Change the routine
Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and the rewards remain the same while only the routine changes.
Addressing our misbehaviors by changing the routine around them is one of the most effective ways to achieve true change.
Charles Duhigg takes the great success of Alcoholics Anonymus (AA) in their withdrawal program as an example.
AA helps alcoholics stop drinking by targetting the routine while keeping the cue and reward intact.
The questions members must answer are:
- Cue: Do you feel sad? Depressed? Bored? Need stimulation?
- Reward: Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, companionship, soothing. The reward is, therefore, much more psychological than physical. They don’t crave feeling drunk. The physical effects of alcohol (hangover) are one of the least rewarding parts of drinking.
Since alcoholics drink to escape their loneliness or to deal with difficult situations, AA has set up a system of constant companionship that brings as much distraction and sociability as a beer on Friday evening.
The cue and reward stay the same, but the routine changes. Instead of going to a bar, they go to a meeting and engage with other people.
Habit change in action
Charles Duhigg shared a case that shows that habit change can be extended to all kinds of situations: Depression, gambling, procrastination, food addiction, breakfast addiction?!!
Mandy, a 24-year old woman, used to compulsively bite her nails until they were bleeding. She was frustratingly unable to stop.
The therapist asked her 2 questions:
- How do you feel right before you bite your nails? The cue
- How do you feel after biting your nails? The reward
Asking ourselves what’s our habit trigger is called “Awareness training”.
Most of our habits are there for so long that we don’t even pay attention to what causes them anymore.
Back to the case, Mandy mentioned that:
- Her cue was tension in her fingers.
- The reward was a physical stimulation she had come to crave.
The therapist asked her to put her hands in her pocket every time she felt the tension in her fingers.
Then, Mandy was asked to find something that provides the stimulation she craves, like rubbing her arms.
The cue and the reward remained the same. The routine was the only one changing.
After 1 month, she had completely stopped biting her nails. Her habit had been transformed into a new, non-harmful routine.
Understanding habit change for yourself
Once you are aware of the cue and reward of your habits, you’re halfway to modifying them.
And that is the great news of the day! Our brain can be reprogrammed, but it takes effort.
I believe that changing habits is like everything else. It’s a demanding process that requires self-discipline and self-awareness.
You know the importance I give to introspection. I think it’s fundamental to know yourself well.
And here, it can get you out of the trap of bad habits.
Therapists, doctors, and psychologists agree that most people who suffer from problematic behaviors get by through understanding their own mechanism.
Then, they find a way to replace their self-destructive routine by healthier, better alternatives.
So, remember: Analyze your cue and your reward. Understand what drives your habits and replace the routine.
Ok, cool. It’s pretty clear how you can achieve habit change. But how do you make those new routines stick through time? That’s where the second golden rule comes in.
Second rule: Believe
Research has shown that changing our routine is effective in achieving habit change until a critical event occurs and the stress of life gets too high. In this case, many stumble and return to their bad habits.
Critical events can be a loved one’s death, a divorce, financial difficulties, and so on.
Academics found that routine replacement is only durable when it is accompanied by something else: A strong and deep belief.
Data showed that alcoholics who practiced the technique of routine change could stay sober until they were confronted with a source of high stress.
But those who believed in a higher power, or something else, or someone, were more likely to go through these periods of stress with their sobriety intact.
You have to believe in yourself, in the certainty that things will get better and that change is feasible.
It is easier to develop that belief when it is shared within a community.
Engaging with people who share the same difficulties or have the same desire for change is often very stimulating.
The power of a group creates a solidarity that takes us away from our pitfalls. It encourages us to believe and stand the test of time.
“Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes“Todd Heatherton
It is not a coincidence that there are so many online communities. Obviously, none is as cool as ours 😉
Through communities, we can support each other. And seeing the success of our peers reinforces our belief that it is possible.
Use your group when you feel you might stumble.
As you might have noticed, in this post I’ve always used the term “replacing or changing a habit”. Never “removing“ a habit.
As Charles Duhigg explains, a habit cannot be eradicated, it must be replaced.
Habit change entails maintaining our cue and reward while implementing a new routine.
We also have to believe in change. Often, this belief is created through the help and support of a community that will be there for you.
On a negative perspective, I believe that habits may restrict us from certain freedom and can lead to harmful behavior. But I also think that, if used properly, it is a formidable catalyst for success.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit “Aristotle
Why did Michael Phelps become the most successful Olympic athlete in history with 28 medals?
Was it his physical advantages? His coach Bowman said that everyone who competes at The Olympic has a top physical condition.
Was it his discipline? All elite performers are extremely disciplined.
What sets Phelps apart from his competitors is his habits.
To make Phelps become who he is, his coach created a few specifics habits in order to build the right mindset that would make him the strongest swimmer in history.
One of them was visualizing, with a high level of detail, the perfect race every morning and evening.
I’ll end this post with a quote that perfectly sums it all up:
“Both success and failure are largely the results of habit”Napoleon Hill
Using habits as your ally or your enemy is up to you!
So what is gonna be your first step?
Personally, I decided to stop checking my phone before sleeping and turn in off earlier.
My reward: The pleasure to read all your messages when I wake up 🙂
Finally, here’s a TED talk on habits from Duhigg himself: