Creatures of Habit

There are bad habits and there are good habits. Our lives are filled with them. Our days are made up of them. And to figure out what we’re doing wrong, it’s always worth looking at our habits. New Year’s resolutions are about getting rid of bad habits or developing good ones. So let’s explore how habits work.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains, “habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”*

Habitual routines are very helpful in getting us through our day, keeping us on schedule, basically without thinking about what we’re doing. Have you ever driven a familiar route almost on autopilot that you don’t even remember doing it? Most of the time we do not have to think about turning off lights and locking doors, or even the route we need to drive to work, because it has become a habit. But what do we do when some of our routine is filled with unhealthy or unproductive habits? Do you hit the snooze so many times that you miss a morning workout? Do you get engrossed in FaceBook in the middle of the work day that you’re not getting your work done? Has candy become your afternoon snack every day? Are you picking up takeout on your way home instead of cooking?

The “Habit Loop” that Duhigg discusses starts with a cue that triggers a craving. He writes, “Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning. One researcher at Cornell, for instance, found how powerfully food and scent cravings can affect behavior when he noticed how Cinnabon stores were positioned inside shopping malls. Most food sellers locate their kiosks in food courts, but Cinnabon tries to locate their stores away from other food stalls. Why? Because Cinnabon executives want the smell of cinnamon rolls to waft down hallways and around corners uninterrupted, so that shoppers will start subconsciously craving a roll. By the time a consumer turns a corner and sees the Cinnabon store, that craving is a roaring monster inside his head and he’ll reach, unthinkingly, for his wallet. The habit loop is spinning because a sense of craving has emerged.”*

The craving leads to a routine (eating a cinnamon roll) which results in a reward (satisfying hunger with something very tasty). So when taking aim at a habit for your New Years resolution, keep this in mind. What’s the trigger and what’s the reward? Can the routine in the middle be replaced by something healthier or more positive? How do you go from hitting the “snooze 10 times” to getting up and going to the gym or getting out for a run? Focus on the reward. And understand that is takes a few weeks for a habit to emerge.

Duhigg  explains, “to understand the power of cravings in creating habits, consider how exercise habits emerge. In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State University wanted to understand why people habitually exercise. They studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives. However, the reason they continued—why it became a habit—was because of a specific reward they started to crave. In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them ‘feel good’—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of ‘accomplishment’—they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.”*

In the later half of this year, I fell out of my running habit. When I was consulting, I was able to fit my workouts easily into a very flexible schedule, but going back to work full-time in April, left me with only the morning before work. And I had also developed a habit while consulting of going to bed later and sleeping later. It took me months to finally get back to a better – consistent –  routine. And consistency is important. After 3 weeks of consciously forcing myself to bed earlier and out of bed in the morning as soon as the alarm goes off, I am almost able to do it without thinking. Almost.

What habits do you want to ignore, change or replace? What’s your New Year’s Resolution?

*Excerpts from: Duhigg, Charles. “The Power of Habit.” Random House, 2014-01-07. iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright. Check out this book on the iBooks Store:

img_5420Mattawa, Illinois. December, 2016.

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