According to research done at Duke University and published in 2006, more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actually decisions, but habits.
When I read that statistic, it made me reflect on my day and all the things that I do. Did I do such and such out of habit, or was it actually a decision? It’s an interesting concept to ponder.
Extensive research has been done around the areas of habit formation, and habit deletion, which also ties into the concept of willpower, which has also been researched exhaustively. In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he explains how habits are formed, how habits are changed, and how often times we don’t recognize habits as habits, which can cause us to feel stuck, companies to be stuck, and societies to be stuck. We just do what we do, and we don’t always know why.
Over time, we develop habits based on cues in our environment and then when we perform a certain action, we are given a reward, either internally or externally. For example, we see someone drinking coffee, and that cues us that maybe we want coffee too, and when we drink the coffee we are rewarded with the jolt of caffeine. What ends up happening, though, is that once the habit is formed, we anticipate the reward before it actually comes, further pushing us to take the action. We see the coffee, our brain already remembers the caffeine jolt from the previous times we have had coffee, and so we have the coffee. We don’t even think about it.
All habits begin with a cue, and end with a reward.
When trying to initiate a new habit, it is important to remember this cycle. If there is something that you want to start doing on a regular basis, it might be necessary to try out different cues and different rewards in order to find success in establishing the habit. And, yes, habits do take time to establish.
For example, let’s say you want to start going running at you lunch hour. You might try the following cues: bring your shoes to work and leave them by your office door, set an alarm on your phone or calendar, develop a partnership with someone to run with. One of these cues might work, and others might not. You have to experiment a little.
The other aspect is the reward. Once you finish the run, what is the incentive? Maybe the sense of accomplishment is enough, or maybe you have to check it off on a list, or maybe you treat yourself with some TV watching when you get home. Regardless of what you choose, it should be enough to keep the action going.
When trying to delete or replace a negative habit with something more positive, the same cycle can be used. In this case, you need to be a bit of a detective. What are the cues to the habit? When does the action occur? Where are you when you do the action? Who are you with? What patterns do you notice?
The second thing to take notice is what is the reward for performing the action. What is being fulfilled by performing the action? Once you come up with a possibility, test it out and see if that is the case. Maybe try to reward yourself with something else instead and see what happens.
Once you have figured out the cue and the reward, you can change out the action, while keeping the same cue and reward. For example, let’s say you get up and get coffee everyday at 3:00, but you are trying to cut down your caffeine intake. After playing detective, you realize that the clock is really the cue and the reward is a brief break from work. The next day, when 3:00 hits you make a decision to not get coffee, and instead take a walk, which gives you the same reward of taking a break from work, but without the caffeine. For a while, you consciously have to decide to go for a walk instead of get coffee, but over time the walk becomes the new habit instead of the coffee.
After learning about this whole concept, I am trying it out at home. The new habit I am trying to perform is to floss every night. The first cue I tried is to just set the floss out next to my toothbrush, but after 2 days that no longer worked. Last night I was lying in bed listening to my husband brush his teeth and I remember that I hadn’t flossed, so I got up and flossed. I guess I have to try a different cue until I find one that works. The reward, and one that seems ridiculous unless you are a type-A personality like me, is that I check off a box for each day that I floss. Just being able to check it off is all the reward I need.
After I get the flossing down, my next step is to stop biting my fingernails. :) We’ll see how habit replacement goes…
What habits do you want to establish or replace?