We’ve all got them.
Whether it’s biting our nails, overeating, or even social media, we’re all guilty of some bad habits that we’d be better off without. Personally, I’ve always been a bit of a stress eater. And as a freshman suddenly facing a hectic college schedule, I had trouble avoiding the Doritos or the Lifesaver gummies every time a little stress hit me. I always blamed it on the fact that I had no time to be healthy and when I got back from college for the summer, I worked to change my habits but to no avail. Eating healthy didn’t last long and exercising lasted even shorter. And it was because I returned to the familiar.
This summer, I came across a book called “The Power of Habit,” in which New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg writes about the science of how habits are formed, how they have allowed businesses to market so many products, and most importantly, how habits can be changed. And I applied it to my own life, and I’ve managed to get back to healthy living again.
But this is beyond just me and my undying love for Doritos. Everyone has something they want to change in their lives. And here’s exactly how you do it:
The important thing the book explains is that habits have three major steps to them. According to Duhigg, there’s a cue, a routine, and a reward.
1. Be aware of the cue
A cue is essentially something that triggers you into the routine. It’s like a mental signal, a green light that tells you to instinctively go. For example, if you have a habit of drinking coffee in the morning, maybe waking up is what makes you think, “It’s time for coffee.” But some cues are trickier than others. In my case, it’s hard to understand exactly why I was so accustomed to snacking.
My solution was to go through daily life and whenever I had the urge to eat, I would mark it on a notecard that I carried with me. And as time passed, I started to notice a trend. Whenever I felt the slightest bit stressed, I turned to food as a coping mechanism. And over time, I had developed a habit of calming myself down by eating.
2. Understand your routine
This was my routine. This is the most obvious part of the process. Biting your nails, dating people who treat you badly— whatever the behavior is that you want to change.
So why do you do these self-destructive things? If there are enough negative consequences that you actively want to change the habit, then how did it become a habit in the first place?
3. Think about the reward
The reason for this is the reward. No matter whether it’s physical or mental or emotional, you derive some form of satisfaction or fulfillment by doing the habit. In the case of biting your nails, perhaps it’s a way to avoid boredom. Perhaps dating bad people offers some form of excitement, a little havoc. And for me, the reward was being more relaxed and feeling more capable of taking on challenges.
Whatever the benefit of the habit is, this is why the routine has become ingrained in your mind. Evolutionary speaking, it makes sense. Your brain can work more effectively if you don’t have to stop and think every time you do a basic behavior. Because we don’t have to actively worry about washing our hands, driving to school, or putting on our shoes, we as a society were able to build skyscrapers and walk on the moon. But sometimes, the subconscious reward of doing a habit can be toxic for your life.
So how do we change it?
So how exactly do we change these behaviors? Well according to Duhigg, there is a golden rule of habit change: You can never turn off a bad habit. The only option is to change it. And to do that, we have to alter the routine part of the three-step process. So as you try to change your customs, really think critically about what triggers them. What compels you to do an action that is hurting your overall wellbeing? Next, assess why you subconsciously enjoy the result of the action, whatever it may be. The key is to find a similar, better alternative.
The most notable case is with Alcoholics Anonymous. In the book, it notes that studies showed the truth about alcoholics. Most of them, when they reach for a bottle of beer or a glass of whiskey, actually don’t enjoy the taste or the drunken effect. Instead, many see alcohol as a way to avoid problems. And with the case of AA, it attacks the problem head-on by providing each member with a sponsor, someone to listen to a member’s problems and help deal with crises in a healthy way. Essentially, the sponsor is overtaking the habit of alcohol, but the cue of a life problem and the reward of comfort is the same.
In my situation, I decided to relieve my stress in a different way than food. I started turning on music, closing my eyes, and focusing on the music. I would breathe in and out, and think about nothing but the music. And by doing that routine, I was able to earn the same reward: relieving stress.
By finding a behavior that earns the same reward as a bad habit, you can be on your way to bettering your life.
As Duhigg wrote, “Habits can be changed if we understand how they work.”
Image via Kellyn Simpkins