Thursday, March 28

Lifehack! How to Break a Habit

As I've said before, I'm a loser who's bad at life (not as bad as some people, but still pretty bad,) and that's why I read books with titles like The No-Moving 100% Ice Cream Law Of Attraction Diet and Chicken Soup for the Twitter Addict's Broken Husk of a Soul. I've probably read upwards of forty of these sorts of books and here is one of the three* that have actually changed my life in a tangible, positive way.

It's called The Power of Habit, and it's AMAZING. Not only is it impeccably researched and well written, but it offers a fascinating combination of the science behind habits, and how to apply those lessons to make everyday life more awesome.

The Power Of Habit by Charles "the shiz" Duhigg.
I just made that nickname up but here's hoping it catches on.

There are so many fun facts in this book it makes me want to cry, and Charles Duhigg's clear and engaging style made me fly through the 300-odd pages. I mean, when I learned that at least 60% of our behaviour is driven by habits rather than conscious decision making? It blew my mind. The conscious 40% of it anyway. The other 60% was eating a cookie at the time.

So here's the coolest part of the book: the habit loop. Every habit comes in this structure and learning it basically lets you break habits and hack your life and win at everything!

How does it work? Basically, every habit consists of three elements:

1. Cue: that thing that triggers the habit, like a certain time of day makes you want to have lunch or a looming sense of anxiety makes you want to check your phone so your hands look busy.
2. Routine: the actual habit you act out, like smoking a cigarette or unlocking your phone and navigating to facebook (I do that so automatically I can be halfway through replying to a message before I realize I'm even on my phone.)
3. Reward: what you're getting out of it, whether it's as vague as momentary distraction or as powerful as the dopamine rush of someone proposing to you on twitter.

As a rule, the cue will trigger a craving for the reward, and the routine is the flexible part which you can alter to make real, lasting changes.

It's really interesting to take a behaviour you want to change and dissect it into these three separate parts. Some habits are easier to analyse than others: if your cue is thirst, your routine is getting a glass of water and your reward is relief from dehydration. Bam!

Of course, nobody wants to break the habit of water drinking so let's go with something more interesting: incessant phone checking.

Dopamine may stain some fabrics.

Our cue here is a nagging little anxiety, which creates the craving for that happy little rush that social media provides. It's that craving that gets the habit loop rolling through the routine of checking your phone, and of course once the habit is established you're not in conscious decision mode anymore. The cue comes along, and just like a zombie, or a lab rat, or a soccer mom who's been sleep deprived for eight years, you automatically act out the routine in order to get your reward. In fact, the cue gets you excited about the reward so you get a pre-rush just starting the habit. It's like a little shortcut that your brain takes to save time. Isn't that amazing / terrifying?

Now that we've identified the habit, we have the power to break it - well, actually 'break' isn't the right word, because this habit's structure will always be in place: anxiety will always trigger a craving for relief and distraction.

It's the routine bit that we can manipulate to get a better result. See how the routine has a little dotted line surrounding it so you can cut it out? That means you can replace it with something else. The important part is that the new routine is triggered by the same cue, and offers the same reward. To mix metaphors, you're putting a different train on the same track in your brain! You're rewiring your powerful unconscious networks! You are the one, Neo!

It's fun to experiment with different routines until you find just the right one to hit that reward in the nuts. For our example, an alternative to checking your phone might be:

  • Having a glass of wine
  • Taking three deep breaths
  • Popping a happy pill
  • Pulling out a Moleskine notebook and writing a haiku about your feelings

As you can see, some of these solutions are better than others. But I included stuff like having a glass of wine to illustrate that the routine can have negative consequences but still serve to satisfy the craving. That explains why people who quit an addiction often replace it with another - because the craving has to be satisfied and the habit loop's already in place. But if you become conscious of it, you can replace the routine with something healthier and better for your liver.

And of course after you've changed the routines in your existing habits, you can create wholly new habits that have a much bigger chance of sticking around because you know how habits are structured. Your brain wires this stuff the same way every time: get yourself a clear cue, plan a sustainable routine and give yourself a powerful reward and see how much easier it is to make changes than when you're just white-knuckling it and hoping for the best.

Obviously this post is only scratching the surface of this cool concept but I hope it helps a bit and piques some interest in this whole process. If you dig it, I highly recommend The Power of Habit if you want to level up the train tracks of EXISTENCE.** Or if, like me, you just want to stop pulling your hair out or checking your phone so much.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to have a glass of wine while breathing deeply and writing a haiku about my feelings.

*If you're wondering what the other two are: Follow Your Own North Star by Martha Beck, and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Both brilliant.
** Yes, I've mixed so many metaphors I seem to have ended up with a metaphor salad. All it's missing is the avo of truth.