Quick, name your worst habit. How long did it take you? If you’re anything like me, you can name a handful of your own bad habits in under ten seconds. Naming good habits (at least for me) takes a little longer.
But here are the questions that stop me in my tracks: What IS a habit? How did I get the ones I have? And how, oh, how can I change some of them?
Today in The Motherhood we had the great good fortune to discuss habits with Charles Duhigg, award-winning New York Times business reporter and author of The Power of Habit, which is currently 7th on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Charles identified a habit as “a decision you made at some point, and stop making, but continue acting on.” It’s something that’s become automatic. Emily asked Charles what his biggest takeaway was from writing the book. He responded, “That ANY habit can be changed. It doesn’t matter how ingrained the behavior, or how long it has been a part of your life. What we have learned from recent neurology studies is that any habit can change, if you know how.”
Naturally, we all wanted to know how. And Charles obliged, with this beautiful three-step process:
“First, diagnose the cue. Most cues fall into one of five categories: a time of day, or a certain place, a certain emotion, the presence of certain people or a preceding behavior that has become ritualized. Once you know the cue, you know when the habit starts.
“Second, figure out what reward the habit delivers. Are you eating cookies because you are hungry? Or bored? Or want the burst of energy the sugar provides? Look for what craving the habit is feeding by conducting experiments (for instance, by eating an apple for hunger, or drinking coffee for energy. Then ask yourself: are you still craving the cookie?).
“Third, figure out a new behavior that can be triggered by the old cue and deliver the old reward. If you previously had a cookie every afternoon at 3:30 because it gave you a chance to take a break, then start scheduling a walk with a friend for 3:30 every day. It doesn’t have to last more than 10 minutes, but it will replace the cookie habit!”
Adrienne asked about the biggest mistake people make when trying to change a habit. Charles said that it’s not giving themselves the reward they really want. (Note to self: stop trying to pretend a rice cake is a “treat.” A two-year-old can see through that one.)
Liz wondered, “How long does it take to make something a habit or change a habit?” Charles said it varies from person to person and behavior to behavior, and offered this encouragement: “The good news is that it will get easier each day. Our neurology is programmed to latch onto habits, and so they get easier each time we do them.”
Asha noted that there’s often a nagging, scolding internal voice that often accompanies our attempts to change a habit. Charles acknowledged this, and said that the key is to remember you’re on a journey, and that we shouldn’t expect change to occur all at once.
Jill observed that she finds accountability to someone else helpful when trying to break a habit, and Charles confirmed that studies back her up: “Dozens of studies have shown that if you commit to a goal with a partner or group, you are much more likely to achieve it.”
Liasynthis wondered about how to ramp up one’s internal motivation to make a change. Charles recommended allowing yourself to really envision the change you want; as the goal seems increasingly real, he said, motivating yourself will become easier.
Once you’re in the groove with a new habit, how do you keep that groove from becoming a rut? Charles had this to say: “The secret is to give yourself evolving rewards. Every routine becomes boring at some point – so spice it up by choosing future rewards. When you start exercising, focus on a small reward – but after a month, choose something big and nice to give yourself if you stick with the work outs. Our brains love novelty. They assign reward value to something new. So vary your rewards, and it will be easier to stick with the plan.”
Holly and EllenRonnie both wondered, what if it’s not your own habit change you’re looking to motivate, but someone else’s? Charles acknowledged how difficult this can be, and offered that studies suggest the best approach is to explain “why YOU want them to change: how their habits impact your life, or why you are scared what will happen if they don’t change. Show your own vulnerabilities, and it will help them feel safe enough to admit to themselves that something isn’t working.”
I found it incredibly empowering to know that an expert in the field firmly believes that ANY habit can be changed. And it was so heartening to know that it’s better if the process of habit change feels good, not bad. Regarding the role of enjoyment in habit change, Charles had this to say: “Rewards are powerful because we enjoy them. If you berate yourself for enjoying a piece of chocolate or 10 minutes watching television, then you rob a reward of its influence. It’s okay to INDULGE yourself! Go ahead! That’s how you create new habits!”
Further reading and resources: