“To modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it” — Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
I often talk about the importance of mindfulness: living in the now, savoring new experiences, pulling yourself out of autopilot in order to be present in the current moment. Some people go so far as to claim that practicing mindfulness is the best approach for a happier life. Yet, others claim what seems like the opposite: that autopilot can be our friend, and that habits can make our lives simpler and happier.
My philosophy is currently floating somewhere in the middle. I think both mindfulness and routines are necessary for the pursuit of happiness. We can use our mindfulness practice to become more aware of our personal habits, which can help us eliminate unnecessary decisions and leave us more energy for things that will make us happier.
New York Times investigative journalist Charles Duhigg agrees (although his point of view definitely focuses a bit more on the habits side of things). In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Duhigg unpacks how harnessing our habits can transform our lives, businesses, and communities for the better.
The transformation starts with understanding the mechanics of a habit. The “habit loop” structure is pretty simple: First, there is a cue, which triggers a routine, which is validated by a reward.
This loop is cemented into a habit when an underlying craving develops. For example: at bedtime (cue) you brush your teeth (routine) and enjoy the clean feeling in your mouth (reward). Eventually, you crave that minty-fresh feeling, which makes you more likely to sustain the habit of brushing your teeth. Want to make a new habit? Become aware of the cue and the reward — because the routine most likely won’t stick without it.
It’s one thing to start a new, positive habit, and it’s another thing to stop a bad one. Once the cue and the craving are in place, stopping a habit cold turkey is incredibly difficult for most people. The habit can become so deeply ingrained that our brains make resisting the craving nearly impossible. That said, what we can do is replace a bad habit with something better.
Duhigg breaks it down: once a habit exists, its cue will always trigger a craving for a reward. But if you can become mindful of those three elements, you can make a decision to change the routine. Does the sight of your phone or the feeling of boredom make you crave a quick social media break because it makes you feel connected? If you can become mindful of the cue, you can change the routine by clicking your email app instead and responding to a personal email. Do you crave a sweet snack in the afternoon or every night before bed? Replace an unhealthy dessert with a few apple slices or a cup of tea with honey.
Prior to reading The Power of Habit, I would have thought that the core ingredient to habit transformation is diligence. But Duhigg reveals that it goes deeper than that — it’s self-awareness. Once we become mindful of how our habits work, we just need to make the conscious decision to change them.
Don’t get me wrong — diligence definitely helps. In fact, Duhigg dedicates an entire chapter of his book to the topic of willpower and the idea that it is a skill that gets easier with practice. He cites many studies from which the same outcome is clear: as willpower muscles strengthen, good habits seem to spill over into other parts of people’s lives.
Duhigg refers to the idea of “keystone habits”, which tend to encourage other good habits, such as consistent fitness routines, making the bed every morning, or having a family meal every day. The habit-changing process begins by exercising our willpower muscle in one prioritized area, and the more we exercise it, the easier it will become to maintain other positive habits.
Although a few of Duhigg’s stories in The Power of Habit dragged on or bounced around a little more than necessary, I generally found his storytelling to be light, relatable and interesting. That said, if I had been tight on time, reading this article Duhigg wrote in the book’s appendix could have summarized a lot of the same ideas.
Nonetheless, I was happy to have come across the book. It got me thinking about some of my own habits that I want to focus on improving, like my writing habit and my workout habit. I know that I need to exercise my “willpower muscle” to make those things come easier. I have a few bad habits that could use replacing, too — like wasting too much time scrolling through Facebook on my phone, or pressing the snooze button too many times in the morning.
So — time to think about cues and rewards and take control of my routines. What can you take control of?