The Power of Habit

IMG_4794I’ve been reading a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s been really transformative for me to understand how habits work.

One way to look at our lives, is to view them as a series of habits. If our brain had to think about putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush or reversing the car every time we do it, we would be constantly overwhelmed. Do you remember when you were learning how to drive? Every time you did a simple manoeuvre, you had to concentrate hard thinking about sequence of looking into mirror, checking the traffic, slowing down…. You still do it, but most of those actions are automatic. That’s what habit is. It’s an activity which is etched into our brain. It’s automatic. We don’t think about it. We just do it. By turning daily activities into habits, our brains save a lot of energy.

Now, what if there is a habit you don’t like? The author explains that there are three key components to every habit:

Cue    —–    Behaviour     —–   Reward

This loop is present in all our habits whether we are aware of it or not.

For example, I’ve been concerned with my sugar consumption levels for a while. Since reading the book, I started paying closer attention to my behaviour around sugar. One particular cue I discovered was having tea. I don’t have tea just on its own; from early childhood, I have developed a habit of having something with my tea. That something used to be candy, a lump of sugar or jam. These days it’s a slice of cake or a cookie. So, I started playing with this habit. I now keep a stash of dry fruit next to my tea bags. Instead of a slice of cake or cookie, I reach for dry prunes – tasty with tea and good for my guts. Another thing I did is to replace tea with another hot drink. I make fruit infusions with a slice of lemon and a couple strawberries. Looks gorgeous, tastes even better, and you know what, I don’t want a cake with it.

To change a habit, you keep the cues and rewards the same, and introduce a new behaviour. So, my cue in this example is ‘I want a hot drink’. My reward is feeling hydrated. I still have the same cue and reward, but by changing my behaviour, I’m making shifts in relation to my sugar consumption.

But what if you want to form a new habit? The same elements are still present. Pick a cue, introduce a new behaviour, and experience the reward. I’m forming a new habit of meditating (I mentioned it the other day in my post). My cue is my daughter’s afternoon nap. I meditate for a couple of minutes. And my reward is feeling more peaceful.

Now, forming new habits is not that simple. We need to anticipate what may get in the way. For example, what if my daughter doesn’t nap? Or there is something else that requires my attention? The new habit has higher chances of forming if we are ready for those setbacks. Also, an element of belief is crucial for this process. I believe I can do it. My struggle is around sustaining it for a long time. By setting myself a challenge I’m giving myself some time to learn a new behaviour. Once meditating becomes more ingrained, I’ll have evidence that I can sustain it and it can strengthen my belief.

In the past, when forming a new habit, I’d simply force myself to do whatever I set out to do. Sometimes it worked, other times I felt like a complete failure. Interestingly, the book explains that willpower is a finite resource. It’s like a muscle we need to strengthen. But if we constantly force ourselves to do something there comes a point when we run out of willpower. Have you dieted ever? Do you know that feeling when you abstain from eating certain things for a while? There often comes a point when you just give up. Well, that’s the point when you ran out of willpower. Simply pushing yourself to do something doesn’t create a sustainable change. Therefore, it’s paramount to create conditions which would support you in times of forming a new habit and won’t exhaust your inner resources. In this respect, having a community (1+ people) who could help you to stay on track may become a decisive factor as to whether you succeed in forming a habit or not.

Two further considerations on new habits:

  1. The author explains the concept of ‘small wins’. New habits are not about one big shift. It’s series of ‘small wins’. Every time I stay away from sugar, I have a small win, which builds up towards an overall satisfaction with my diet.
  2. Identify a ‘keystone’ habit which can trigger other positive changes in your life. For example, if I significantly reduce consumption of sugar, I may loose some weight. Feeling lighter and better about my body, I might exercise more, which in turn may improve my productivity. I may re-new my wardrobe and start socialising more. I may feel better emotionally because instead of stuffing my emotions down with sugar, I may look at the source of discomfort and let it go. You see the chain? Introducing one key habit has a potential to change all of your life.

The author ends the book with a cautionary tale of a housewife who started gambling out of boredom. She lost not only her own family’s money, but also a large inheritance ($1 million). This case study reminds us that when we are aware of habits which have a negative impact on our lives, we have responsibility to change them. No one else can do that for us.

I used Ghandi’s quote in the past, but these words have a whole new meaning to me, especially where he referred to habits.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

I highly recommend reading The Power of Habit. It’s truly illuminating because the author presents scientific information in a very accessible way. It’s a real page-turner and the case studies and examples make it really easy to follow. I love how empowering this book is because, through understanding how habits work, we can change our lives for the better.

http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

10 thoughts on “The Power of Habit

  1. I started that book and could never finish it.Blame it on my laziness or lack of committment to reading.. Now after reading your article, I think I should try to finish it . I have heard some great reviews :))

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  2. This sounds like a good book. The power of habit “is” amazing, both for the good and the bad. I kept a food journal for a while and it was very interesting. I had a habit of always talking on the phone in the kitchen. That meant I always grabbed a snack while I talked. Now I take the phone out of the kitchen as soon as it rings. I go out on the porch, or sit in the living room. I stay as far away from the pantry and all those between meal foods as I can. I’ll have to look for this book, I’m sure I have a few dozen bad habits I should work on.

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    • It’s a great book, and it sounds like you already know the mechanics of how habits work (like phone ringing was a classic cue and you changed your behaviour around it). I guess, I’ve never thought what happens in our brains when we do something. So, I found it really empowering. Thank you so much for reading this post and commenting here 🙂

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  3. Good one Gulara thank you … I could change some of my ‘bad’ habits I guess. I know that eg if I miss writing in my gratitude journal for one night then one night becomes 2 and so on. This seldom happens but it does … likewise with talking on the phone – into the kitchen I go to look for something to nibble on –

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Susan, I recognise the habit around missing an entry in the gratitude journal. I’ve fell behind with mine lately. It’s so easy to slip. As you say, one night can snowball into days or months if we let it.
      I found this whole subject fascinating, including the neurology of forming habits. I also enjoyed learning more about this topic at individual, organisation and societal levels. Many thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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