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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 13, 2020

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

    If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

    1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

    The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

    Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

    For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

    The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

    2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

    Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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    As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

    Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

    3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

    Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

      This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

      We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

      Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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      When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

      Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

      4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

      Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

      For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

      Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

      5. Make Decisions

      For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

      If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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      If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

      Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

      I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

      This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

      The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

      6. Take Some Form of Action

      Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

      The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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      It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

      Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

      The Bottom Line

      Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

      When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

      More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

      Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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