We all like to think that we’re in control of our actions.
We consider what we should do and then decide what’s best.
Well, there’s a report out of Duke University that over 40% of the things we do every day are NOT based on rational decisions.
Our actions come from our habits. And we’ve been forming those habits since we were kids.
But, all is not lost. Research shows that we (you and me) can change those habits.
This is all contained in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I recently read it and suggest that you should too.
The Habit Loop
According Duhigg, our habits take the form of loops. He calls them Habit Loops.
To change a habit all we need to do is change its loop.
Here’s what a Habit Loop looks like:
cue –> routine –> reward
This sequence has become a habit because we’ve repeated the loop many times. Often even without realizing it.
A great example is your morning routine.
You have one, don’t you?
Maybe it’s something like this: your alarm goes off (cue), you stumble out to the kitchen and turn on the coffee pot (routine), you look out the window thinking about the new day while you sip your hot coffee (reward).
Go ahead and fill in your own version of the cue, routine, and reward loop with your activities.
These days you do this without a second thought. Unless you’ve run out of coffee. Then when you get to work you complain how your morning got off to a bad start.
You have many habits like this and they can be useful.
Of course, not all of our habits are useful.
For example, what about the habit of eating a pint of ice cream when you feel upset?
Maybe it goes like this:
Your boy friend yells at you (your cue). You’re upset and grab a pint of peanut butter chocolate ice cream (your routine). While you’re eating the ice cream you feel better (your reward).
The reward can be small or large. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that so often we can respond to a cue without thinking about the long term results of the routine we’re following.
It turns out there’s one more ingredient in the Habit Loop. This is what guarantees that the loop becomes a part of our lives.
It’s called craving. When you crave the reward then you will form a permanent habit.
If you feel unloved after your boy friend yells at you and eating the ice cream fills that void, then you can develop a habit of eating ice cream after every argument.
Certainly, there are many other examples.
Many people (maybe you’re one of them) start exercise routines with great excitement. But, a week or two later they stop.
It turns out that men and women who start to crave the rewards that come with exercise are the ones who are most likely to continue the routine.
This craving takes many different forms
- “I feel great after exercising.”
- “I know I’ve accomplished something on the days I exercise.”
- “My clothes have never fit better and I don’t want to lose this!”
What’s important is that the craving is something you value.
The Golden Rule
Now we need to understand what Duhigg calls the Golden Rule.
If you’re like me, you have some habits you want to change.
You look back at your life (just like I look back at mine), and you recall events that you wish you could change. It’s sort of our own version of Groundhog Day.
Have you ever thought, “Why did I do that? Again?”
I especially feel this way when I repeat a habit that I thought I’d broken.
This is the shocking news: We cannot wipe away our old habits.
We may be able to hide them. But, they are still there. Ready to be activated again.
Here’s what you can do. You can take the the habit loop of cue –> routine –> reward and change the routine.
Researchers have found this to be the best way to change a habit.
Remember this example:
Your boy friend yells at you (your cue). You’re upset and grab a pint of peanut butter chocolate ice cream (your routine). You feel better (your reward).
Most of the time the cue is beyond your control. You will argue with your boy friend sometimes and he may then yell at you.
In addition, there may be no problem with the reward you want. Of course you want to feel better after an argument.
What You Control
Where you can exercise some control is in the routine. You can decide that eating a pint of ice cream is not a good way to get the reward you crave.
Instead, choose a different routine that takes the place of the ice cream. Maybe you could watch funny cat videos for a while.
Or you go outside for a walk.
(I know some people like to go shopping. I’m sure you realize the shopping routine can be as harmful as the eating routine.)
What’s important is for the substitute routine to give you a reward like the one you crave.
Duhigg now explains the Golden Rule of Habit Change: you have to believe you can change.
You will only change when you think change is possible.
We do see evidence all around us that change is possible.
- Men and women stop biting their nails.
- Alcoholics stop buying liquor and drinking.
- 2-pack a day smokers stop.
Don’t get me wrong. No one is saying that change will always be easy.
Change, especially for some habits, can be very, very hard.
But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
In the title of this article I raised the question: Is this the secret to success?
It could be that developing the right habits and changing a couple of bad habits is your key to success.
Try looking at goals you’ve wanted to achieve but until now they have been out of reach.
Then consider what habits you could change or develop that would help you reach that goal.
Just note, in this short review I’ve only discussed the first few chapters of The Power of Habit.
I urge you to get a copy of the book and read the whole thing. You’ll thank me for it.
The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Published by Random House, 2014.
Here’s the short video from the author, Charles Duhigg: