7 Steps to Change Your Habits and Improve Your Life

Lane Beck, 20 May 2018, San Diego CA

“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.'” — Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Habits are powerful and serve a purpose.

We all have habits (good habits, bad habits, and benign habits) whether or not we choose to acknowledge them…. your morning routine, your route to work, what we eat, even how we communicate. many of these are driven, often unknowingly by habit. Habits allow humans to conserve brain power while we accomplish things that we already know how to do. In essence, to multitask.

Habits can get us into trouble (or so I am told 😉

Bad habits (like eating poorly) can quickly spiral out of control. It starts innocently. We excuse the fast food stop because we are busy. We do things out of convenience rather than mindful choice. Urgency takes precedence over importance like when we skip the workout because we have to get that work project done. before you know it, you’re working late, grabbing burgers and fries and skipping the workouts more times than not.

There is hope.

You can change those patterns. You can get back on course. It is never too late. The best time to start was yesterday, the second best time is right now!

There are 7 steps to breaking those bad habits and turning a little piece of your life around. The last four steps (steps 4, 5, 6, and 7) are taken directly from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. The first three of those last four steps (steps 4, 5, and 6) are the three elements of the Habit Loop: the Cue, the Routine, and the Reward… in that order. A cue triggers and routine which generates a reward. Every habit is made up of these three elements.

  1. Forgive Past FaultsDon’t beat yourself up over poor choices you made in the past. Everyone struggles with poor habits. What matters is what you do right now. And you have made it this far. You have made the choice to make incremental improvements. So far, so good!
  2. Prioritize a Single Challenging HabitDon’t overwhelm yourself. Pick just one thing to work on. For illustration purposes, I’ll use a simple example from the book. One to which we can all relate. You’ve picked up a bad habit. Every afternoon at work you go to the cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie while chatting with coworkers… said habit has caused you to gain a few pounds. It happens.
  3. Believe in and Commit to ChangeKnow that you can do this. If you have trouble believing you can do it, tell yourself you can anyway. Say it out loud, multiple times a day, on a schedule, while looking at yourself in the mirror. Fake it ’til you make it! Take comfort in the fact that others have overcome obstacles much greater than this. Now it is your turn.
  4. Identify the RoutineThe routine is one of the three components of the Habit Loop. It is the behavior you want to change. In our example, the routine is stepping away from your desk at work every afternoon to get a cookie. This is the simple part. The next two steps will require some time, effort, and creativity. Old habits die hard!
  5. Experiment with RewardsRewards are what satisfy the cravings of the habit… and enforce it for the future. They are often not obvious, even hidden. In our example, the reward is currently the cookie. But is that really what we are craving? Let’s find out. In this step, you are going to get creative and test different routines that deliver different rewards. You will need to keep trying different things. Lots of things. The more, the better. You are trying to find out what exactly you are craving. Is it the sugar rush in an afternoon slump? Eat an apple instead to see. Do you just need a break from staring at your monitor? Go for a walk. Are you craving a bit of social time with your colleagues? Chat at the water cooler. Only by identifying the real craving can you hope to circumvent the bad habit. After several experiments, you discover it wasn’t the cookie you craved, it was some social time. Now, let’s figure out the real cue.
  6. Isolate the CueThe cue is the thing that leads to the routine. According to research, one of the following five types of cues trigger almost all habits: (1) Location, (2) Time, (3) Emotional state, (4) Other people or (5) Immediately preceding action. In this step, you need to figure out which of the five is the cue for your habit. Each time you feel the urge for that cookie, write down your location, the time, your emotional state, which people, if any, were nearby and, lastly, what you just did. After you have done this several times, you should see a pattern and be able to correctly identify your cookie cue. After diligently taking notes whenever you think about that cookie, you discover that it always seems to hit around 3:30 in the afternoon.
  7. Have a PlanEverything you have done up to know is the legwork, the research. Now that you have discovered your real cue, your routine, and the real reward, it is time to take action! To update your habit to something more positive, you attach your new routine with a new reward to your cue.
      1. Cue: Clock hits 3:30pm
      2. Routine: Stepping away from your desk
      3. Reward: Chat with coworkers
    • Make this a conscious choice. Put it on your calendar as an event. Write yourself a reminder. Commit to your colleague that you will take an afternoon break and come for a quick chat at 3:30. Make it a friend in the next building over so you can walk off those extra cookie pounds! By committing to a trusted friend, you are much more likely to follow-through. Do it over and over until it replaces the old habit.

Congratulations! You are well on your way to positive change!

Remember: Only you get to choose what is important to you. No one else can judge which habits are good, bad or indifferent to you. It is your agency. Own it. You are in charge. Do not feel that you have to justify your actions to someone else. You are taking responsibility for and control of your life… starting now. When you’ve mastered your first habit, move on to another. Did I mention… it’s a never-ending loop of life optimization!

I’d love to read your feedback in the comments section of the blog:

  • What bad habits were you able to change?
  • How did you accomplish lasting change?
  • How did it make you feel?
*Note: The last four steps come directly from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
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