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The Amazing Secret Behind All Habits

The Amazing Secret Behind All Habits


    “21 days for a habit to sink in…” 

    “Habits must have positive reinforcement…” 

    “You must go ‘cold turkey’ for a real habit to sink in…” 

    Have you ever heard these myths about habits?

    They may not be necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete.

    Habits tend to be like fleeting, mystical “pots of gold” for us humans–we want them, and reach for them, but they’re often just out of our grasp. They promise a better life, filled with more success, more productivity, and better results in every arena.

    But they’re hard to set. 

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    Of course, the problem with most habits is that they’re not something we can just think about–we need to actively try to implement them, remind ourselves to think about them, and even keep written reminders in the corners of our homes that remind us to think about them!

    In a word, habits are difficult.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve met someone with a particular character trait–for example, the proverbial “strong and silent type”–and told myself that I’d work to “be more like that.” I can’t remember how many times I’ve read about an historical person who’s personality I wanted to “borrow” and make my own–like Einstein’s journaling habit, or Ben Franklin’s creativity, for example.

    These are the types of habits that we all want–the specific aspects of character, personality, and daily habits that promise to make us into perfect specimens of humanity. However, as you probably know, these habits are also usually directly contradictory with our own genetic predispositions.

    In other words, we’re trying to pit our voluntary habit-creation neurons against our involuntary makeup–not a match that will be won easily.

    Thankfully, there’s a better answer. 

    The answer to the questions “how to set a habit that sticks” is one that’s deceptively simple–but don’t disregard it for its simplicity. It’s a “secret” for that reason; something as seemingly complex as “habit-setting” we assume to be much trickier than it really is.

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    To say Charles Duhigg wrote a book that helps with habit-setting would be an insult to his name–the man wrote the book on the subject, after years of study, experimentation, and many hours of research, testing, and interviewing. It’s more a treatise on habit setting than a simple guidebook.

    For our purposes, though, we’ll focus on the truly simple method of habit-setting in human adults, using research that Duhigg proved and wrote in his book, The Power of Habit.

    The Habit Loop

    Duhigg describes a habit not as a singular effect in the brain, but as a “chain” of related events–the “Habit Loop.”

    The Habit Loop is made up of three components:

    • Cue/Trigger
    • Routine
    • Reward

    The Cue or Trigger phase is what “triggers” a certain routine–technically, this is the start of a habit. A Cue can be anything from walking past the snack machine at work when you go to the restroom, or it can be more complex, like seeing a particular sign on a particular road when you’re driving with a particular person.

    The Routine is the part of the habit loop that’s triggered. It’s “what you do” after the Trigger. You see the snack machine and immediately feel hungry. In trying to chase a reward (usually subconsciously), your brain pushes you through the Routine until the Reward is reached.

    The Reward is exactly what it sounds like–though it doesn’t need to be an actual positive effect. It’s simply the final stage of a habit loop, telling the brain that the Routine is finished. Because our habits usually end in reward, like “eating a bag of chips and feeling satiated,” or “running a mile and feeling accomplished,” we describe this stage as a reward.

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    So how do you change a “bad habit?”

    Duhigg thankfully doesn’t leave us with just this scientific explanation of a habit loop–he goes further to describe what we can do to target and change a specific habit from one we think is “bad” into one we’re happier with.

    It starts with making the subconscious Trigger and Routine stage something we’re conscious of. The most effective thing his test subjects did was genius, and delightfully simple (in theory!):

    Duhigg told them to keep an index card and pen or pencil with them at all times, and make a tally mark each time they found themselves going through their habit loop.

    A great example of this was his nail-biting test subject. Every time she felt the urge to bite her nails–or actually found herself biting her nails–she made a tally on the card.

    After a few weeks, her index card was full of tally marks (she had to start on the back of the card!), but she was acutely aware of the Trigger phase–she knew exactly when she would have nail-biting urges would strike.

    What this young lady discovered was that her Habit Loop looked like this:

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    • Cue: The desire to bite her nails (caused by stress, wanting something to do, whatever)
    • Routine: Instead of biting her nails and carrying on about her day, she now must tally it up on the card.
    • Reward: The reward of biting her nails (less stress, anxiety, whatever) was still there.

    She still bit her nails, but her Habit Loop changed slightly so that she was more conscious of her “bad” habit.

    The second step of the Habit Loop

    The second thing Duhigg told her to do was to change the Loop slightly–just the Routine phase.

    This time, he had her add an “–” dash next to each tally mark that represented when she effectively fought the urges: when she recognized the Cue to bite her nails, but didn’t:

    • Cue: Desire to bite her nails ensues.
    • Routine: Instead of biting her nails, she actively remembers her task and marks a dash on the index card.
    • Reward: She’s given herself the small satisfaction biting her nails once provided–without needing to bite them.

    …and you can guess what happened. 

    Sure enough, after a short amount of time (remember, she’d already spent a few weeks building a new Habit Loop for nail-biting), she no longer needed to bite her nails! The urges were still sometimes there, but her Habit Loop had changed so that the Reward was no longer biting her nails–it was the satisfaction of making a tally mark and a dash when she didn’t bite them!

    The power of this exercise is immediately and effectively useful to any of us–whether we bite our nails, smoke, drink too much, or whatever. We can use the Habit Loop and the science behind it to set new habits for ourselves that remove “bad” habits, set new “good” ones, or even make drastic personality changes in our lives.

    I’ve experienced these effects first hand, and it’s an amazing and powerful system. Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!

    (Photo credit: Workflow Loop via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2019

    30 Best Procrastination Quotes to Get You Back to Work

    30 Best Procrastination Quotes to Get You Back to Work

    What do your 3pm fridge raid and perfectly alphabetised bookshelf have in common?

    You most likely did both of them when you should have been doing work.

    Procrastination is one of the most human behaviours. We’re all guilty of putting off what we know is important from time to time, and it seems the more pressing the task at hand, the better we are at avoiding it.

    Sure, it means that every time we have an important deadline we end up with a spotlessly clean house and a completely empty inbox, but the real work gets left until the very last minute and is finished in a frenzy of stress and caffeine.

    But we can gain control over procrastination by noticing it as soon as possible and stopping it in its tracks. On the contrary, you know you have a bad habit when you’re aware you’re putting something off, and you continue avoiding it anyway.

    To start you off with combating procrastination, here are a few quotes to get you in a motivated frame of mind, because if procrastination has any enemies, it’s motivation to work harder.

    A Few Home Truths

      “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
      ― Mark Twain


      “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”
      ― Leonardo da Vinci


      “Someday is not a day of the week.”
      ― Janet Dailey


      “Success is not obtained overnight. It comes in instalments; you get a little bit today, a little bit tomorrow until the whole package is given out. The day you procrastinate, you lose that day’s success.”
      ― Israelmore Ayivor


      “The man who waits to know everything is the man who never does anything.”
      ― Craig D. Lounsbrough


      “Procrastination is like going to a fancy restaurant and filling up on bread and not leaving enough room for dinner.”
      ― Richie Norton, The Power of Starting Something Stupid: How to Crush Fear, Make Dreams Happen, and Live without Regret


      “Procrastination is the lazy cousin of fear. When we feel anxiety around an activity, we postpone it.”
      ― Noelle Hancock, My Year with Eleanor


      “Doing things at the last minute reminds us of the importance of doing things at the first minute.”
      ― Matshona Dhliwayo


      “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
      ― Abraham Lincoln


      “A day can really slip by when you’re deliberately avoiding what you’re supposed to do.”
      ― Bill Watterson, There’s Treasure Everywhere


      “By what right do I, who have wasted this day, make claims on tomorrow?”
      ― Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes


      “If you want to get ahead in life, I’ve found that perhaps the most useless word in the world is “tomorrow.”
      ― José N. Harris


      Some Practical Advice

        “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
        ― Hilary Mantel


        “Thinking too much leads to paralysis by analysis. It’s important to think things through, but many use thinking as a means of avoiding action.”
        ― Robert Herjavec, The Will To Win: Leading, Competing, Succeeding


        “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone”
        ― Pablo Picasso


        “It is only by working the rituals, that any significant degree of understanding can develop. If you wait until you are positive you understand all aspects of the ceremony before beginning to work, you will never begin to work.”
        ― Lon Milo DuQuette, The Magick of Aleister Crowley: A Handbook of the Rituals of Thelema


        “Do first what you don’t want to do most.”
        ― Clifford Cohen


        “How often do you find yourself saying, “In a minute”, “I’ll get to it” or “Tomorrow’s good enough” and every other possible excuse in the book? Compare it with how often you decide it’s got to be done, so let’s get on and do it! That should tell you just how serious your procrastinating problem really is.”
        ― Stephen Richards, The Secret of Getting Started: Strategies to Triumph over Procrastination


        “How to stop procrastinating starts with believing you can overcome procrastination.”
        ― Robert Moment, How to Stop Procrastinating


        “Never put things off…you will wake up and find them gone.”
        ― James Jones


        Some Tough Love

          “Do something instead of killing time. Because time is killing you.”
          ― Paulo Coelho, Aleph


          “If you take too long in deciding what to do with your life, you’ll find you’ve done it.”
          ― George Bernard Shaw


          “If you want to get ahead in life, I’ve found that perhaps the most useless word in the world is “tomorrow.”
          ― José N. Harris


          “What is deferred is not avoided.”
          ― Thomas More


          “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work”
          ― Chuck Close


          “If you always do what is easy and choose the path of least resistance, you never step outside your comfort zone. Great things don’t come from comfort zones.”
          ― Roy Bennett


          “Your ideas have legs and just as they run through your head, they could be running through someone else’s head and it’s just a matter of who gets to the finish line first. Nothing is new under the sun so act on your ideas.”― Sanjo Jendayi


          “You may not be punished for your procrastination, but for sure you will be punished by your procrastination.”
          ― Debasish Mridha


          When You Need Pulling out of Procrastination

            “Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.”
            ― Denis Waitley


            “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”
            ― Karen Lamb


            Print these quotes out, stick them on the wall in front of your desk – do whatever it takes to remember why you shouldn’t be putting your work off, or getting distracted by a desire to rearrange your socks into colour order.

            It won’t be easy, but being aware of how detrimental procrastination is to your longer-term goals is the first step towards overcoming it.

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            Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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