February 03, 2014
Habits are like cron jobs for the brain. They govern a large portion of our behavior automatically. According to a study by a researcher at Duke University, more than 40 percent of our day to day actions are the result of habits. (1) Fortunately, habits can be reprogrammed.
The habit loop is composed of three parts. Once this loop is established, the habit becomes automatic. These components are:
A cue is what triggers a habit. For example, my cue to eat lunch is that the time is around noon. Cues can take many forms, including specific times (dinner at six PM), mental states (emotional eating when sad), visuals (eating candy on the counter), or preceding actions (brushing your teeth after a meal).
A routine is the action that triggers the reward. This is the behavior you are trying to change.
The reward is what you get for completing the routine. Examples include the sugar rush at the end of a candy binge or the runners high you feel after a hard workout. Rewards are not always obvious. For instance, when I was in college, I would work out with my friends on a regular basis. The reward wasn’t the energy boost from the workout, but the time I spent with my friends.
The key to changing a habit is to identify the habit loop. Once you identify the habit loop, you can change the components of the loop and change the behavior. Here are some strategies that you can use to modify your own habits:
The easiest way to change a habit is to modify your environment. Add cues to trigger good habits or remove the cues that trigger bad habits. For example, I like to put my weights in my living room so I’m reminded to workout. The great thing about environment design is that you can take it as far as you want to go. You could even build a Batcave for Habit Change
Swap the Routine
Charles Duhigg, in the book The Power of Habit, advocates changing routines. This is a good strategy when you don’t have control over your environment. It’s easy to hide the M&Ms in your pantry, but hard to get your office to remove a vending machine. To change a routine, learn to identify the cue that triggers the habit and then try different routines until you find one that delivers the same reward. For example, if you want to kick a morning soda habit, try switching to tea or doing 20 squats instead.
This technique comes from Stoic philosophy. It works by devaluing the reward for a habit. Take something you desire, like a new gadget, and decompose it. For example, the hot new phone is really just a metal and glass enclosure with some copper and plastic inside. Decomposition shows you that the items you desire are not special.
There are certain habits that have the potential to radically alter your life. These are called keystone habits. Keystone habits can start a chain reaction that changes other habits. If you can develop a keystone habit, you can radically alter your life.
Common keystone habits include:
Habits don’t just apply to individuals. Organizations also have habits. Some of these habits are documented in policies and others are a result of organizational culture. Most business books highlight organizational habits. The classic business book Good To Great is about habits that are shared by “great” companies. The Joel Test is a list of desirable habits for software development organizations.