2012
09.29

What made you brush your teeth this morning? Guess what? It wasn’t that you wanted them clean.

Something I’ve been trying to master recently is habits. Both making new habits and changing existing ones. If you want to start doing something on a regular basis, you need to make it habitual. Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” covers this fantastically well.

“All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” — William James

There is a cycle to all habits: cue, routine, reward. In the case of cleaning your teeth, the cue might be getting out of the shower, tying your shoelaces or switching on the radio. It doesn’t matter what the cue is, but it will be something particular, and you more than likely don’t ever notice what.

The routine is cleaning your teeth. The reward? It’s actually the cool tingling sensation you experience. Almost all toothpastes contain additives who’s sole purpose is to make your mouth tingle and it’s this tingling feeling that your brain takes as it’s reward. This habit loop of cue, routine and reward is so powerful because over time, the routine no longer involves a conscious decision, it becomes a neurological craving.

Forming habits

As a habit forms, the amount of neurological activity decreases steadily. A study was done by MIT researchers in the early nineties where they created habits in rats by opening a door with a clicking sound (cue) and having them navigate a maze (routine) with chocolate at the end (reward). The activity of the rat’s brain decreased as they learnt how to navigate the maze, then after a little more maze navigation, the decision making parts of it’s brain switched off and then finally, the areas of it’s brain related to memory weren’t even required. After a week of running through the maze the rat almost didn’t need to think at all.

Once formed, habits never really go away either. After forming a habit in the rats, the researchers then changed the location of the reward to a different part of the maze, thereby breaking the rat’s habit loop. When they returned the reward to the old location, the habit returned almost instantly.

“Unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically” — Charles Duhigg

Changing existing habits

The key to changing existing habits is to keep the cue the same, keep the reward the same and just focus on changing the routine. So if you want to stop having a chocolate bar at 3pm every day, find out what the cue is for that behaviour, find out what the reward is, and then once you know those, you can insert a new routine.

Say you leave your office at 3pm every day to go to the local shop and buy a snack. What’s the cue? Is it the time? Is there a natural break in your work? Then look hard at the reward. Are you actually hungry or do you just need the stimulation of a short walk? Is it the social contact with the shop keeper or your work colleagues that you’re sub consciously craving?

Once you know exactly what the cues and rewards are, then it’s just a case of altering the routine so that when your habit is triggered by the cue, you carry out a different routine (short walk instead of chocolate) and receive the same reward.

Building new habits

Creating new habits works in a very similar way but you have more control over how you design the habit loop. Want to go for a run every day? Put your running gear in a particular location where you can see it when it’s time for you to go running. Make that your cue. Then decide on a reward like a protein shake or bar. Then every time you see the cue, make sure you go running, and then relax and enjoy the reward afterwards. Over time, you’ll internalise this process until it becomes habitual and when you see your running gear in it’s spot, you won’t even think twice about running.

30 days and habit loops

There’s definitely a habit element to my 30 day challenges which is worth considering. There’s no hard and fast rule on how long it takes to form a habit and, depending on the habit loop, it could easily be longer than 30 days. But for me, the point of a 30 day challenge isn’t to make a habit of everything you try, it’s to try new things and if you like them, you’re well on your way to making it a habit.

Have you had any luck hacking your own habits? I’d love to hear what worked for you

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