By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations
Mark Twain is widely known for his wit, and his quips are as applicable today as they were in his day. Speaking on habits, he said, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” Modern research and studies on habits make his words seem prescient in 2013. This week, I discuss how habits are formed and how to change bad ones and create good ones.
Our lives are often defined by habit. We may not make a name for ourselves by becoming a restaurant regular, dining at the same time and ordering the same dish every day, but we brush our teeth the same way every time without a thought. We go through our morning routine, showering, making coffee and dressing, and our thoughts wander elsewhere. Habits take over, and we’re able to think about the upcoming meeting, coming events or the dream we woke from.
We create our own habits. As we repeat our habits over and over, they become more entrenched in our brains. As powerful as established habits are, we can change our ways if we want to, using good techniques, and going slow. Replacing a bad habit with a good habit over time is the best way to succeed.
First, what forms a habit? This three-part process, a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” is at the start of every habit.
- The cue: This first part of a habit is the trigger that causes you to fall into automatic mode while you carry out the second part of the habit process, behavior.
- The behavior: The action part of the habit. Brushing your teeth is a process you don’t pay attention to unless your attention is called to it specifically. Otherwise, you’ll perform the behavior and forget it.
- The reward: At the end of your habit, there’s something your brain likes, a reward, that helps you remember the action for the future. As you repeat the action, your brain thinks less and less, and habits are formed.
Charles Duhigg, author of the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” started investigating habits for a book while trying to learn about (and break some) of his own. The book is a good read, and the techniques suggested to break and replace habits are fun to carry out as experiments for your own personality. Habits are not broken overnight, as Mark Twain sagely stated. It’s best to tackle unwanted habits one at a time, slowly, and leave yourself room for error.
Settle on one habit you’d like to end, and establish three things: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Once you understand those three integral parts, you’ll be better able to make a change. In an interview for Fresh Air, Duhigg explains how he kicked his afternoon cookie habit. It’s an entertaining account, and shows that success is possible if you go slow.
I’ll close with a fascinating finding written about in Duhigg’s book. Keystone habits are habits that, when practiced, have a ripple effect across all areas of a person’s life. Not surprisingly, regular exercise (even just once a week!) helps create positive change throughout a person’s life. People who exercise are more likely to eat better, get to work earlier, smoke less and feel less stress. If you’re looking to start a chain of positive reactions, the best place to start may be with your health.