Habits invoke varied ideas and emotions in the mind and heart of the individual. A quick search on google yields a plethora of books, ideas, and quotes on habits. We understand the power of habits. We have tried successfully and at times, unsuccessfully, to create and keep them. In this blog post, I will attempt to share with you both the science (drawing from the field of psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience) and the art of building new habits. Knowledge is power. My purpose is that this will give you the clarity you need and the confidence to start and restart.
Let’s jump straight in to look at 5 books on the power of habits and one website. (For more information, read the 6.5 Habit Gurus – What the smartest people are telling us about the science and art of building new habits, found on boxofcrayons.com)
Charles Duhigg, a New York Times journalist shares that a habit is not simply behavior but it is a loop made out of a 3-part system. It starts with a trigger, followed by the behavior, and then a reward. Most of us begin with step-2, the behavior. We work out a plan to change it and we begin. For instance, we want to stop being perpetually late. To do that, we adjust our watches by moving time forward by 10 minutes.
Duhigg challenges the conventional approach by introducing a pre-step to behavior change. He says that there is a trigger that prompts or cues us to behave in a certain way. And that trigger is what sets the habit in motion. Using our punctuality example, “Why am I serially late? What’s going on there? Is there a trigger, what is it?” Understanding the trigger to the old behavior is key. Why? Because if we do not understand what triggers the old behavior, high chance we would already be practicing the old behavior that we are trying to change before we can even think of changing it. So, start with the trigger, not the behavior. Ask yourself, “What sets off this old behavior that I am trying to change?”
The more specific you can be about the trigger, the better. Duhigg talks about 5 trigger areas. They are time, location, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. Let’s put this all together with an example. As a trigger, you start by saying, “when I am in the office…. ”. It becomes more helpful when it is narrowed to “When I am asked to do extra work in the office” and becomes even more helpful “When Bob asks me to do extra work in the office on a Friday at 6 pm”…..you get the idea.
Duhigg closes his 3-part system with ‘rewards’. Trigger and rewards are perfect bookends to the challenge of building new habits. Rewards are what you get from a particular behavior that makes you do it again and again and again. If a behavior is not inherently rewarding, you are unlikely to keep at it. Think ice cream after Saturday night dinner. That’s a habit you are trying to break but ‘OH.SO.HARD!’. You try and keep failing. What’s the reward? Well, it’s the lovely taste of sweet, delectable, sinful chocolate swirling and melting in your mouth. And don’t you deserve it after a long and hard week at work?
That reward my friend doesn’t have to trump all other alternatives. What are the rewards of eating yogurt as opposed to ice cream? Yogurt tastes nice, it gives you a healthy gut and helps keep your calorie count down. To be specific, it reduces indigestion, constipation…helps you fit into skinny jeans! Now isn’t that something to look forward to?
And get this, Eyal, in his book Hooked (see Book #2), in quoting Gourville, says that because old habits die hard, new products or services need to offer dramatic improvements to shake users out of old routines……new entrants must be nine times better! (emphasis added). While the quote above relates to technology, we can apply it to any habit. Work hard and start listing down as many rewards as you can get with your new habit. Time to be super creative.
This is a fascinating book that looks into the neuroscience of rewards. Eyal says that “79 percent of smartphone owners check their device within 15 minutes of waking up every morning.” Hooked? Yes.
In this book, Eyal explores the concept of rewards in detail. Why do Facebook, FarmVille, and the likes have billions of people hooked? What’s in it for the users and players? He makes an interesting discovery about rewards. “We don’t want the sensation of receiving the reward, whether it is a “like” on Facebook or a piece of chocolate. What we want is to alleviate the craving we feel for that reward”. He goes on to further state, “All humans are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek hope and avoid fear, and finally, to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection. “ Wow, mind-blowing! While you mull on that……..
One reason habits die hard is because of the sense of control it gives us. YOU get to be in control, even if it’s working against you. And moving on to a new habit almost always feels like you are out of control, at least at the onset. So how do we deal with this strong innate desire for control? We focus on the rewards.
Duhigg introduced ‘rewards’ as step-3 in his 3-step approach. And we looked at it a few paragraphs up. Eyal extricates the concept of rewards and breaks it down into 3 types: the tribe, the hunt, and the self.
– The Tribe: rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included.
– The Hunt: rewards that bring us physical objects and supplies that help us to survive.
– The Self: rewards that fuel intrinsic motivation as we grow and gain mastery.
To fight the urge to take control and therefore give in to an old habit, let’s consider the different rewards you get from switching over to yogurt against those from eating chocolate ice cream on a Saturday night. The Tribe: makes you feel important to your friends and family members who now think that you have made a difficult but admirable decision. The Hunt: NA (not applicable). The Self: amazing health benefits and an opportunity to look sexy – skinny jeans! C’mon, that has to count!
Dean devotes a chapter to breaking bad habits, and boy, don’t we all have that. What doesn’t work? According to Dean, willpower and suppression will not defeat the bad habit. Dean suggests two strategies that will work.
One is mindfulness. Mindfulness as defined by Google is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; it is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. As opposed to habit, which works on auto-pilot (more frequently than not), mindfulness is being aware of what you are doing minute by minute. This awareness can help you avoid bad habits.
Two, create a new one. Dean puts it like this, “You can’t just dam the river because the water will rise and break through. Instead, you need to encourage the river to take a different course.” Just saying no to bad habits and trying either through willpower or suppression not to follow through on bad habits will not work. We need to actively pursue a habit to replace the old one.
Using our chocolate ice cream example, we have seen how you can replace ice cream with a healthier alternative like yoghurt, instead of denying yourself the pleasure of enjoying a sweet dessert altogether.
Fogg suggests that instead of tackling a project, we tackle “the next action”. In other words, we need to identify the micro-habit, which is part of the larger habit that we are trying to build.
Using our earlier example of punctuality, this would mean breaking down the new habit of ‘being on time’ to smaller bite-sized habits like wearing a watch, waking up at 6am in the morning, leaving one hour before work begins etc. We begin with the micro-habit of wearing a watch. And once mastered, we move on to the next micro-habit of waking up at 6am and on it goes.
Besides breaking down the habit into micro-portions, the next important thing to do is to ensure that it takes less than 60 seconds to complete.
Fogg gives an interesting example of teeth flossing. Fogg committed to floss just ONE tooth after brushing (Why? Because it takes less than 60 seconds). You can’t really find a solid reason to say ‘No’ to that. So, you floss just one tooth. Guess what happens after flossing just one tooth? With the floss wrapped around your fingers, you end up flossing all your teeth.
In The Talent Code, Coyle sets out to research on talent hot spots around the world. For example, a rundown court in Moscow produces extraordinary women tennis players. The Juilliard School is home to world-class musicians. The Caribbean is a baseball talent factory.
Coyle discovered the answer in the field neurology and the answer is myelin. Myelin is an insulating layer, or sheath that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. It is made of protein and fatty substances. The myelin sheath allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002261.htm)
The more myelin you have wrapped on the neural pathways for a particular action, the faster and better you will perform that action. Coyle identifies ‘Deep Practice’ as a means to get more myelin. Deep practice is not just practice. It is not doing something over and over and over again mindlessly. Deep practice is deliberate and mindful. It has 3 core components.
Coyle uses the example of tennis.
– First component: identify and isolate a key building-block skill. In tennis, you don’t practice the serve; you practice just one key element, such as throwing the ball up in the air.
– Second component: mindful practice. Do it fast, do it slow, try it out until you really understand it.
– Third component: start to feel the success. Learn what it feels like when you are doing it well, rather than doing it approximately.
This is Deep Practice at work.
Baobata says to focus on creating just one habit at a time. This may be more challenging than it seems. Slowing down for some, is hard. Saying ‘No’ for some, is hard. We are used to handling many things at a time – many activities, many projects, many people etc. And when it comes to habits, if we attempt the new ones all at once, we could end up miserable and failing miserably.
Baobata says that our chances of success are much higher when we concentrate one just one habit at a time. “Devote all your energy to that habit change, and once it’s on autopilot, move on the the next one. Knock ‘em down one at a time.”
In case you are wondering why we had not highlighted James Clear’s NY times bestseller book Atomic Habit, it is because we wanted to share the video content below.
Do check out Micheal Bungay’s Stanier’s 3-part Habit video series here. They are hilarious!
Here we are at the end. We have combed through 5 books and 1 website they each have a salient point to say about habits. To summarize,
This is a guest post by Jamie Solomon, a dear friend for almost a decade and an enthusiast in making her life and the life of others, better every day.
Jamie is wife to an amazing husband and mother to four incredible kids. A stay-at-home mom who occasionally gets paid for her work. In between all these, she thinks and writes. As she tries to figure out life and understand its complexities, she aims to live life to the fullest, with her warts and all.
Making others happy, makes her happy too. She enjoys good company over a cup of coffee. She is a fan of dark chocolate, Greek yogurt, and cashew nuts. She is fond of learning, sharing, and meeting new people. Audible is a game-changer for her. She can ride a motorbike, has bungee jumped. She loves nature journaling and birdwatching.
What’s your favorite book on habits? How has it helped you? Tell us about your experience in creating new habits or how you got rid of old ones. We’d love to hear from you!