It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way out for brunch. During the week when I go to the office, I turn right, cross the street, and take the train uptown. However, brunch was a left turn and downtown. Why did I automatically turn right when I was supposed to turn left? I’m sure this has happened to many people – you usually go one way and you still go the same way even though you’re supposed to go the opposite direction. It’s called a habit. Today I am going to talk all about habits and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. If you missed my last book review (more like book reflection), click here. Duhigg starts by talking about individuals’ habits, then moves on to talk about habits of organizations and social movements. I will focus on individuals’ habits in this post and how I incorporated ideas from his book into my life.
When you first learn how to play the piano, it probably seemed impossible, but after practicing the same song for one hundred times, you can play it with your eyes closed. Our brains have the ability to operate on autopilot, which is why we can perform complex behaviors without thinking about it at all. It sounds pretty cool, but also scary.
Some of these habits are good, but some are really bad. Smoking, drinking, gambling, and overeating are just some of the bad habits out there that people put in their new year’s resolutions every year. Duhigg’s book explains the science of habit formation and change to help us better understand how to make good habits and how to change bad habits.
One of the first concepts Duhigg explains is the habit loop. There are three components of a habit loop – cue, routine, and reward. The cue is anything that triggers the habit and can be an emotional state, a location, a time of day, and so on. For example, every day at 3pm, you go to the cafeteria to get a chocolate chip cookie. The routine is the behavior that you want to change or reinforce, like biting your nails or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The reward is the reason your brain decides to do the two previous steps and it provides a positive reinforcement for the desired behavior. For example, a chocolate chip cookie, a break from work, or a feeling of escape from your worries. When you want to change your habits, you want to change the routine. The cue and reward stay the same.
I am going to use myself as an example. When I’m bored, I shop (both online and in-store), and after that, I’m no longer bored because I start thinking about how to wear or use the things I just bought. I noticed that I often shop because I have nothing better to do, and since shopping is so easily accessible from my laptop, I often order things just to not feel bored anymore, like I accomplished something by placing an order. Most of the time after I place an order, I start thinking about when I can wear a certain outfit, how I can style it, and so on. Sometimes I am good and return the items, but sometimes I end up keeping items that are not practical. Basically, I end up spending more money than I should.
I’ve been wanting to tackle my bad habit of online shopping for a while, but could never really do it. I would go two weeks without shopping and then go back to it in full force. It was because I never changed the routine and my brain was still craving the reward. When I got bored (the cue), it was very easy for me to fall back into the habit loop to get the reward. When I was reading this book, I nailed down the cue and reward but I wasn’t sure what my new routine would be. After the concept of habit loop really sunk in, I noticed that I replaced the routine without intentionally replacing it. What did I replace online shopping with? Blogging! It hit me about two weeks ago that I was spending my spare time blogging instead of online shopping. The cue was the same and I was getting the same reward but from a different routine. I obviously still online shop, but I do it a lot less often than before. Most of the time I set a goal for myself and if I reach it, I can buy something that is on my wishlist. : )
You don’t always have to change habits, you can also reinforce your good habits. I have been drinking more water than before and want to continue doing that. I noticed that during my afternoon slump at work, I tend to look for snacks so that my mouth is moving and I’m not just typing and staring at a screen. At the beginning of this year, I started to drink water instead of snack during these afternoon slumps. My mouth was still moving and it also gave me an excuse to leave my desk – the bathroom. The reward, a distraction, stayed the same. I hope to continue doing this habit!
The key to getting rid of a bad habit is to nail down the cue and reward and change the routine. I only focused on habits of individuals in this post, but I recommend reading the entire book to learn about habits of organizations and social movements. The chapter about buying habits and the Civil Rights Movement were two of my favorites. After reading all his examples, you will really understand how habits form and change. It is scary that one concept, the habit loop, can explain so much about our lives! What is one habit that you want to change or reinforce? Leave it in the comments below! As always, thanks for stopping by : )