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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 March 21, 2019

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

    Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

    You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

    But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

    To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

    It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

    “What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

    The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

    In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

    Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

    1. Start Small

    The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

    Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

    Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

    Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

    Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

    Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

    It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

    Do less today to do more in a year.

    2. Stay Small

    There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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    But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

    If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

    When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

    I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

    Why?

    Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

    The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

    Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

    3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

    No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

    There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

    What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

    Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

    This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

    This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

    4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

    When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

    There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

    Peter Drucker said,

    “What you track is what you do.”

    So track it to do it — it really helps.

    But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

    5. Measure Once, Do Twice

    Peter Drucker also said,

    “What you measure is what you improve.”

    So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

    For reading, it’s 20 pages.
    For writing, it’s 500 words.
    For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
    For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

    Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

    6. All Days Make a Difference

    Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

    Will two? They won’t.

    Will three? They won’t.

    Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

    What happened? Which one made you fit?

    The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

    No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

    7. They Are Never Fully Automated

    Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

    But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

    What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

    It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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    The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

    It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

    It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

    8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

    Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

    Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

    When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

    The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

    Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

    9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

    The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

    Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

    You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

    But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

    So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

    If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

    This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

    The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

    Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

    10. Punish Yourself

    Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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    I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

    It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

    You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

    No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

    The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

    But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

    11. Reward Yourself

    When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

    Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

    The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

    After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

    If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

    Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

    If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

    In the End, It Matters

    What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

    When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

    And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

    “Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

    Keep going.

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    More Resources to Help You Build Habits

    Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
    [2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
    [3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
    [4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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