Habits Take Hold

Photo by stanciuc/iStock / Getty Images

In January, we learned the difference between tactical and transformational change, and why the latter makes change so hard. You can read the article here.  This month, we’ll examine the physiology of habits, how their powerful automation takes hold in the body, and what you can do to reshape and create new habits for positive change.
In his terrific book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg explains the neurological loop of habits as beginning with a cue, which leads to a routine, and ends with a reward.  The cue - routine - reward loop, when repeated, becomes automatic in the brain and body.  It concretizes when the body begins to crave your participation in the habit.  Each time you complete the habit loop, your brain releases feel-good chemical neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, to the body.  Next time the cue arises, your body anticipates and craves the feel-good reward, and that biology is a tough contender against willpower.

1702 Habit Art Image.png

This happens for good evolutionary reason. The vast majority of what we do is automated; only a small percentage is effortful and intentional.  In the morning, do you think about how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth?  No, you just do it.  Habits and automation regulate and preserve brain power and body energy – glucose – so it is available when we need it.  And it’s a good thing, as the executive functions of our brain that are used for effortful thinking – like decision making, focus, prioritization and judgment - require high levels of glucose to function.  When you find yourself in a new and challenging situation, you often feel tired and more quickly depleted, right?  That’s because the effort required is using more energy – you’re not on autopilot.
What habits aren’t serving you?  Do you reach for a sugary treat in the afternoon, gossip to colleagues, or watch too much TV on the couch instead of going to the gym?  Many of my clients are actively managing work-life balance issues and tell me they feel like Pavlov’s dog at home every time their smartphones ding, indicating new messages.  Sound familiar?  Do you feel the strong craving to check and respond to that email?  In this case, the cue is the phone’s notification, the routine is the checking and responding, and the reward is something you need to identify for yourself – maybe you feel a sense of accomplishment or connectedness, or maybe you’re just bored and want a quick distraction?  Here's my advice: turn off all notifications!
Duhigg suggests the following steps for redesigning habits:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with reward
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan and change the routine

The routine is the behavior you want to change.  Let’s use a relatable example – every late afternoon at the office you walk up a floor to the vending machine and buy an unhealthy snack.  What reward are you getting from this routine? Are you satiating hunger, relieving boredom, giving yourself a quick break?  Experiment with different rewards by changing the routine – instead, go for a walk around the block, keep a healthy snack at your desk, or put on some uplifting music.  Were you able to subdue or overcome your cravings with any of these alternative actions?  How did they make you feel (reward)?  If a brisk walk did the trick, then this habit is not actually about hunger.
Isolating cues is often the hardest step because many triggers may be at play – time of day, location, emotional state, who’s around, what you were doing right before, etc.  Targeting rewards and isolating cues requires some experimentation.  In our example, maybe the cue is a particular time in the afternoon, or maybe your officemate opens a crinkly bag of chips every afternoon, and the sound is your cue.  Pay attention to the possible factors.
Have a plan.  Now that you’ve got all the pieces of this puzzle, create a plan to assure you’ll change your routine - behaviors and actions - in the future.  Set an alarm for 3pm and take a 10-minute brisk walk around the block for the next week instead of ascending the stairs to the vending machine.  It may feel effortful at first, because it’s not yet a habit, but after some consistent practice, you’ll automate the activity and hopefully your trips to the vending machine will be a distant memory.  Even better, where your former habit made you feel satisfied in the moment but guilty later, your redesigned habit will leave you feeling healthier and energized.
Wishing you habit makeovers that lead to healthier, happier and more productive times ahead!