Are you curious about how habits work? Have you ever thought; I wish I could change my bad habits? Welcome to the world of habits. In the next few minutes, you’ll understand how habits work. Moreover, you’ll also learn how you practically can change (bad) habits into new-, perhaps life-changing habits. Why should you know this? Simple. Because good habits can help you to improve your health, professional life, and life in general. As Greek philosopher Aristotle already told us: ‘’We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
What are habits?
Before we dive into how you can change habits, it is perhaps handy to take a look at what habits are. According to Charles Duhigg (2012), writer of international bestseller ‘The Power Of Habit’, habits are automatic responses that come from subconscious processes in our brains. Let’s give an example. Think about what you did this morning when you woke up. What did you do first? Did you grab a cup of coffee? Did you smoke a cigarette? Did you hop in the shower? Have you maybe sent a message to your crush? :) Whatever you did, your automatic pilot guided you to make a certain decision. Your morning ritual is a daily repeating process. It goes automatically. Time to understand how habits are formed.
Welcome to The Habit Loop
According to Charles Duhigg (2012), a process of three components within our brain is responsible for our habits. This process is called The Habit Loop. The process starts with a trigger, this is called the cue. The cue triggers our brain and tells our brain to use our automatic pilot. Put differently, the cue is our reminder that steers us into our routine. After the cue, the routine kicks in. The routine is the habit itself and can be good or bad. The routine is an automatic response and can be mental or physical. Finally, the routine provides physical sensations or positive feelings. This is called the reward. After completing the cycle, our brain is convinced that the routine works well.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you feel hungry (= cue). Of course, you want to get rid of your hungry feeling. You know from experience that eating a pizza will give you a nice saturated feeling. Therefore, you order your favourite pizza (= routine). After 30 minutes, you finally eat your pizza. Hmmm, delicious! Your hungry feeling is gone and you feel good (= reward). Does this sound familiar? Welcome to The Habit Loop.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Time for the main question: How can we change (bad) habits into good habits? Scholars agree that changing habits can be very hard, because habits are automatic responses and deeply nested in our brains. Now, is there a reason to panic because you have some bad habits? No. Habits are not destiny. There is a golden rule to make new habits. This rule is developed by Charles Duhigg (2012) and is called the The Golden Rule of Habit Change.
The method is easy to understand. If you want to change a habit, don’t try to replace the cue or the reward, but replace the routine with another one. Simple said: change your behaviour. Why? Because we use our routine to get what we want. We want physical sensations or positive feelings and need our routine to get it. So: find something that gives you the same happy feelings.
Replace the routine and you’ll see that it works. Over time, the pattern (cue → new routine → reward) becomes more and more an automatic process; our brain gets more and more used to the new cycle. Eventually, a new habit is born. Congratulations! OK, cool, but how long does it take? According to recent research by the University College London (2009), it takes on average 66 days to change or form a new habit. The 21-day rule of Maxwell Maltz (1960) is outdated.
Let’s get back to the pizza-example and think about this. Instead of ordering a pizza, you decided to make yourself a nice and healthy dinner (= new routine). Hmm, that was good! After eating your healthy dinner, you felt good and satisfied (= reward). How does this sound? Time for the conclusion. If you want to change a particular habit, take the following steps. Keep the cue, insert a new routine, provide the same reward. As English poet John Dryden (1680) already knew: ‘’We first make our habits, and then our habits make us’’. Good luck!