Making them or breaking them … habits are far more powerful than you think. By Magdel Louw
How often do we think life could be a lot easier? Or wish that we could, at least, get through the difficult times without it taking up so much thought and willpower? Well, it could be easier than you think – and it all comes down to one little word: habit. Breaking your bad habits and then forming good ones in their place is a way to hard-wire your brain – and yourself – to be far more efficient on a day-to-day basis.
From the beginning
So what is a habit, exactly? A habit is a settled and regular practice, a way in which the brain drives us to be productive. It transforms as many tasks and behaviour as possible into habit so we can do them without even thinking, leaving us with more brainpower to focus on other things. Most of the time, these habits are to our benefit. But, sometimes, they can also make it seem almost impossible to break habits and form new ones.
According to Sandton industrial psychologist Zurayda Shaik, habits are behaviour a person learns and becomes accustomed to (or even reliant on) using for various reasons. Their habits may make them feel safe or calm their emotions.
In The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, author Charles Duhigg explains that habits are formed when our brain starts to understand how a task works and the behaviour then becomes automatic – and, as a result, the mental activity needed to do the task lessens dramatically. Charles says this process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is also known as ‘chunking’ and is at the root of how habits form.
In actual fact, there are hundreds of behavioural chunks we rely on every day. Each of them consists of a simple, but very powerful, three-step loop.
First, there’s a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and also which habit to use, says Charles. Secondly, there’s the routine, which can be either mental, physical or emotional. And finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic and the cue and reward systems become more intertwined. Eventually, what will happen is a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. And then – voila! You have yourself a habit.
Charles explains that there is no escaping the three-step loop, as it is so hard-wired into your brain. The mistake we often make is to ignore this and snatch away a ‘bad’ habit from our daily activities, which then leaves us with a glaring absence of its associated reward. For example, cutting out coffee and cake dates with friends on a Sunday morning, an activity that rewarded you with socialising. Entirely erasing this one activity from your life will probably leave you feeling quite unhappy, since the reward is also gone.
The trick then, Charles says, is to keep the cue and the reward, but change the routine. A much better alternative will be to get a friend to go to the gym with you. Then you not only have the healthy routine of exercise replacing your negative routine of eating sugary food, but it will also yield the same reward
of social time and relaxation.
So, if you want to break a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine and still get the same reward.
If getting this healthier pattern integrated into your daily life requires you dwell on the rewards – then go ahead, says Charles. Think about the smoothie that you’ll slurp up after sweating at the gym, or how great you’ll feel after the endorphin rush. Anticipating this reward will, over some time, create a craving that will make it easier to walk past the cake stand and through the gym doors instead. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, also triggers a craving for the reward to come.
Keep it up
When it comes to sustaining a habit without backsliding, the final trick is to believe that change is possible. This often comes with the help of a group, says Charles, as with them comes accountability and belief – key ingredients to help us stick with a new habit. Want to write? Sign up for a class. Run more? Join a club.
The more positive reinforcement surrounding you, the easier it will be to make the difficult changes.
As easy as 1, 2, 3
Habit guru and psychologist BJ Fogg has come up with a method to making new habits. It consists of three simple steps:
1 Make it tiny To form a new habit, you must simplify the behaviour. Make it tiny, even ridiculously so. A good tiny behaviour is easy to do, and fast. For example, floss one tooth, walk for three minutes or do two press-ups.
2 Find a spot in your existing routine where this tiny new behaviour can fit Put it ‘after’ an act that is a solid habit for you, such as brushing your teeth or eating dinner. The key to a new habit is this: find something it can follow on from.
3 Train the cycle Focus on repeating the tiny behaviour and integrating it as a part of your routine every day on cycle, says BJ. At first, you will need reminders. But the behaviour will become automatic. The trick is to keep the behaviour easy, until it develops into a solid habit.
Start from scratch
To get a new habit ingrained in your daily life, psychologist BJ Fogg recommends ‘setting macro goals, but with micro quotas’. The goal is that big thing you want to accomplish (such as writing a book) and the quotas are the minimum amounts of work you must do every day to make it a reality (writing 1 000 words a day, as an example).
This supports studies that have found we are far more likely to finish something if we can just get over the hump of starting. Try telling yourself to ‘go to the gym and exercise for 10 minutes, that’s all you need to do.’ After spending 20 minutes just getting there, you’ll most probably think to yourself, ‘Now that I’m here, I may as well do a full session.’