What’s the first thing you do when you get up? How are the following habits formed? Why are they so revealing of who we are? How do you build a healthy routine to accomplish your goals?
Charles Duhigg, author and reporter/editor at The New York Times, wrote “The Power of Habits.” His book explains the importance that habits play in our lives and how they formed to make us up.
Many of the choices we make on a daily basis may seem like well-thought-out decisions, when they are not. Everything you have later will be the product of the habits you build now, hence the need to understand how they work.
Habits are three-step loops
Habits are choices and actions that we repeat unconsciously, without thinking about it. The human brain is programmed to save energy and forming habits allows it to work less.
Almost 40% of what you do every day are habits; which is partly a good thing because it allows you to devote your energy to more interesting tasks.
Each habit follows a neurological loop divided into three parts: a signal, a routine and a reward.
A signal: The slightest stimuli perceived by your brain can activate a routine (place, time, emotional state, people, behavior).
The routine: is the action triggered in response to the signal. It can be physical, mental or emotional.
The reward: which reinforces the link between the signal and the routine. If it finds satisfaction, your brain will keep it and assimilate it for the future.
The formation of your habits is therefore a response that your brain has found to the demands of your environment. They are incredibly resilient since the learning and maintenance of habits happens in the basal ganglia, a part of your brain that can function normally even if the rest of your brain is damaged.
Comfort breeds bad habits
Unfortunately, this resilience also has its downside, because getting rid of a bad habit is always a very delicate exercise with a risk of relapse. This is why it is so easy to stay in our “old ways” since it is something we are familiar with and comfortable with.
Very often, comfort is at the origin of our bad habits which are often linked with social pressure and the influence that others exert on you. It is easier to go to McDo than to learn about nutrition (reading and theoretical knowledge) and to pay great attention to what you eat.
Getting rid of a bad habit is hard because you also develop a desire to get the reward at the end of each habit.
Habits endure because of desire
A simple habit is enough for the brain to start anticipating the reward even before having it. And once you anticipate, missing out on the actual reward can leave you frustrated. This is the basis of the neurology of desire.
Desire generally follows a feeling of lack, of inner emptiness that needs to be filled. It also works well for good habits. Those who exercise habitually are eager to get something, it could be endorphins, a sense of accomplishment, or the treat they indulge in afterwards. This craving is what structures the habit.
When you see a signal, a fleeting desire drives you to action. It’s the dopamine that kicked in, your brain doesn’t make any distinction between what is good or bad for you, it wants to satisfy its desire right away and get what triggered this promise of reward.
The case of Pepsodent
Companies work hard to understand and generate such desires in customers and prospects. In the 1900s, only 7% of Americans had toothpaste. In a decade, this figure has reached 65% thanks to Claude Hopkins.
This man, who was one of the pioneers of modern advertising, popularized Pepsodent toothpaste by bringing a reward: the feeling of freshness and tingling which is a basic element in all toothpastes today. This effect gradually entered the minds of customers who assimilated a reward they began to desire while brushing their teeth.
Changing with Key Habits and Achieving Small Wins
Not all habits are created equal. Some are more important than others because doing them creates a positive domino effect. Duhigg calls it keystone habits, it’s a keystone, a central stone at the top of an arch that locks the whole thing together.
To find it, a question to ask yourself: what is the habit that brings you the most benefits in your life?
Key habits bring small wins that boost your overall motivation to have more good habits. If you play sports seriously, you will take care of your diet, be more productive and less stressed.
Achieving a key habit helps you believe that change is possible in other aspects of your life, this virtuous circle is fertile ground for new good habits to take root.
Self-discipline is the most essential key habit
Do you know the marshmallow test? This is a famous scientific study that experimented with the self-discipline of four-year-old children with candy. It was revealed that those who were able to resist the temptation of instant gratification did better in their studies and their social life because they had a long-term vision.
Self-discipline is this ability to be aware of what you are doing. It allows you to direct your will in the application of a beneficial rule of conduct in the interest of your objectives. The sacrifice of instant gratification is the condition of long-term virtue.
Self-discipline can be trained like a muscle. It is valuable because you have a limited reserve of willpower that is reduced as the day progresses. But it is possible to exercise it to improve it.
Your self-discipline can be undermined by the lack of autonomy. If you do something out of compulsion rather than choice, your willpower will wear out more quickly because you will do it reluctantly or fall into decision fatigue (deterioration in the quality of decisions after reaching a limit).
How to change a habit for a good one
By reflecting on the cues and rewards that trigger your routines, you may be able to change any habit in your life.
Let’s say you know someone who loves to play video games. The signal is boredom and the nearby computer and the reward is the feeling of progress by gaining levels.
It is useless to try to resist this urge in the short term. Keep the same signals and rewards, but change the routine that generates this desire by substituting it with something less harmful.
If this person decided to go on Duolingo, a site allowing to learn a language like a game, he would have the same reward by having the feeling of progress after each lesson.
There’s also Habitica, a free app to build habits and improve productivity by organizing your life like a role-playing game.
The plan of attack against bad habits
Identify the routine: the one you want to change (stop touching your smartphone, playing, binge-watching, emails, social networks, etc.).
Identify the reward: your real desire can be different and used for a better purpose. To find it, experiment. You can have the same reward by doing otherwise.
Identify the signal: which can be indexed through time, location, emotional state, people, immediate or specific action.
Create a plan: with a sentence that links a signal to a specific action.
Ex: When I feel tired and lazy at 2 p.m. (signal), then I will go out to walk a little for 15 minutes (routine) because it will bring me freshness and gives me energy (reward).
To build a habit, you must also place as many external signals as possible to reinforce the call for routine. You can even turn difficult tasks into habits that require little effort. The rest is just a matter of imagination.