Updated: Dec 3, 2019
While many of our habits are necessary for survival, we all have certain habits that we'd be better off without. Read about a powerful and effective way you can change your bad habits into good ones.
Our brains are wired in a way to save as much energy as possible for doing advanced things when we need it.
Most of us have our routines, such as waking up at a certain time in the morning, getting ready for work or school, having breakfast, brushing our teeth, leaving the house, and so on.
Our lives are very dependent on our habits and most of them are very good for us.
Imagine having to think very hard every time you brush your teeth, how much you should squeeze the tube in order to put put the toothpaste on your toothbrush. Or trying to measure and calculate in your head exactly how much toothpaste should you take every time. Or in which directions you should move your toothbrush each and every moment.
Some things are great to do "on autopilot". It saves us a lot of energy and time.
However, I'm sure that we all have at least one habit that we would like to get rid of. Maybe it's snacking too much, smoking, spending too much time on social media, watching too many shows on Netflix?
Whatever it may be, there's an efficient way to eliminate a bad habit, by changing it into a good one.
What are habits and how are they made?
A while ago, I read a book "The Power of Habit", written by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg explained that habits consist of three elements (1):
The cue can be a certain time of the day (like 8:30 is when you typically start working and therefore you wake up, get ready and go to work most days at that time), a certain location (going to the library to study or to the gym to exercise), a smell (like the one coming from a nearby pizza place or bakery, making you feel hungry). It can also be a sound or a certain song that you hear (like a certain song making you concentrated and another certain type of song puts you in a great, relaxed mood) or a certain object (your phone nearby, distracting you from work and making you want to scroll through social media) or an advertisement that you see (your favorite brand's clothes ad makes you want to browse their website or go to the store).
Basically, a cue is something that will automatically make you want to take a certain action. It will lead to a certain routine that results in you getting a reward (1).
For example, imagine that every day, at 2:30pm at work, you get a craving to eat something sweet. Your energy from lunch is wearing off, and you still have 2-3 hours left to power through work.
This is your cue to perform a certain action that follows.
What do you do?
Without thinking, you go to the nearest café and buy a delicious, freshly baked pastry. You see your colleague sitting there and taking a break as well, so you join them as you eat the pastry. This is your routine that followed the cue.
Routine is the action you take to satisfy your craving, or the action that typically follows the cue so that you can get your reward (1).
When you come back to the office, you feel more energized and motivated to continue your work day, after having devoured a sugary pastry and chatted with your colleague. This is your reward for having performed your routine.
This is an example of the entire habit loop. It's called a loop, because of this exact reason - it keeps going.
Once you see a cue, perform the appropriate routine and get your reward, you will go about your day... Until you get the same cue again, which will lead to the same routine and give you the same reward.
Habits have the tendency to occur automatically, often without us realizing that we have them. They form so subtly that we don't notice until we're really in too deep.
The key component of the habit
As you may have realized, the cue is the thing that starts off the entire habit loop. And once you've had your cue, the entire process tends to carry out on autopilot from there (1).
When you realize your cue - the thing that makes you crave and anticipate the reward you will get, if you carry out the routine - then you have accomplished the first step of being in control of your habit.
How can we change the existing habits?
Charles Duhigg created a four step, quite easy process that really works great to change the habits (1):
1. Identify the routine
If you're like me, get distracted every time you get a notification on your phone while working, you might also be wanting to change this habit.
Getting a notification often leads to me picking up my phone and ending up scrolling through social media longer than I was anticipating. Hence, I really wish to change this habit.
The important thing to do here is to identify the components that make up your habit. In this example, the cue can be the notification. Or maybe it's boredom? Or tiredness and need for a break? Think about your habit that you want to change and its cue.
It may not be the first thing that comes to your head.
Following the cue is the routine - you picking up your phone and checking the notification and while you're at it, going on social media.
What do you get out of this?
This leads to the following step, where you really figure out the reward of your habit.
2. Experiment with rewards
This step will get you out of the habit loop and make you mindful of what it actually is that you need when you get the certain cue.
Whenever you feel the urge to look at your phone while working, do something else instead. Go take a short walk. Or go to your colleague and talk for a while. Or go away from your desk and scroll through social media somewhere else. Or take a coffee break.
Try to come up with as many different things you can do instead and try them all during the next days when you feel the urge to look at your phone.
The key to make it work is to also take notes.
As soon as you've performed your new routines, write down the first three things that come to your mind. Then, after 15 minutes, think whether you still want to look at your phone or continue working.
This reflection will give you a mindful moment to really understand how you are feeling and what you truly need.
The break in-between, right after the routine and 15 minutes later also gives you a great time frame to reflect on whether this routine worked and if the new reward was sufficient.
If you're still craving to look at your phone, then you can try a different routine instead.
3. Isolate the cue
As Duhigg explained in his book, oftentimes the cues that trigger our habits are not the ones we think they are (1).
For example, if you get the notification on your phone, the cue may not be the notification itself. Your phone may be on flight mode, yet you'd still be tempted to look at it.
Can it be the mere reason of your phone being at your hands reach? Can it be a sign that you need a break? Maybe you are tired? Or bored? Or you've been doing the same thing for too long and your brain needs a different kind of task for a while?
There's a technique that you can use, while experimenting with your routines in step 2 and figure out your cue.
Every time you feel the urge to look at your phone, have a list of these five things you can fill in:
Where am I?
What time is it?
How am I feeling?
Is there anyone else around? Who?
What did I do before I got this urge?
Fill in this every time you get the urge to check your phone or any other habit you'd like to change.
After a while, go through your notes and you will start recognizing a pattern.That way, you can identify what your cue really is.
4. Have a plan
So now, when you know your real cue, routine and reward, you can make a plan of how to change the habit.
In my case, I have identified that my cue is the combination of my phone being at hands reach and the fact that I need a break during the times that I feel like scrolling through social media.
The plan in this case, is to change my routine every time I feel like I need a break and lose my flow.
Instead of scrolling through social media I get off my desk and stretch or go for a very short walk. I also keep my phone further away and on sleep mode.
My reward actually increases as I get a real break by stepping away from my desk and when I come back, I feel much more energized and motivated again.
Some habits require more time to change than others. You just have to be consistent and don't beat yourself up if you slip a couple of times. It happens to all of us.
In the beginning you may need strong reminders that will make you stick to your plan. For example, if your cue is a certain time of the day, you may need to set an alarm.
But after you've done it many times enough, you will notice that it all comes automatically and you will not have to think about it.
So keep sticking to your plan to change a bad habit into a good one and keep being consistent!
For those of you interested in how habits work in greater detail, I also really recommend reading "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. It's a very interesting and easy to read book, which explains how habits work in both personal and professional setting.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on email@example.com
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Duhigg, Charles. (2012). The power of habit : why we do what we do in life and business. New York, N.Y. :Random House : Books on Tape.