The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Got any bad habits you’d like to break? I sure do. 

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg (2012), introduced me to the habit loop. Duhigg’s premise is that if we become students of ourselves, we can identify our own habit loops and exchange bad habits for good habits.

It only took me a few days to devour the book and its persuasive anecdotes about people who’ve broken bad habits by manipulating their routines. Seems almost too simple. Yet there might be something to it.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Let’s say one of my bad habits is eating sweets when I’m not hungry. (Who me?) What I’d prefer is to enjoy a sweet treat once in a while when I am hungry and can savor it (mindfully) for maximum enjoyment. The book suggests four steps in a sort of reverse engineering strategy: Identity the Routine, Experiment with Rewards, Isolate the Cue, and Have a Plan.

Identify the Routine (Routine = one of my bad habits)
My routine is to go to the kitchen, open a cupboard or the refridge, find a treat (cookies, donuts, cake, pie, candy, anything chocolate), and eat it in front of the TV.

Experiment with Rewards
What craving drives my behavior? I don’t know. But Duhigg doesn’t tell us to get analyzed. He suggests instead that we take time to collect data about ourselves. The first step is to list several activities we’d enjoy as much or more than the reward we get from our bad habit. It took me a while to identify some that would be as convenient and enticing as a sweet treat. In case you’re interested, my list includes (but is not limited to): reading, riding the train, researching, calling a friend, playing the piano, writing a letter. (Not on my list: cleaning, shopping, painting, golfing, organizing.) The second step is to try out the items–one by one–until we find one that works. Thinking positively is biblical, too. “Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.” (Proverbs 4:23)

Isolate the Cue (what triggers the bad habit)
For me, the cue is the way I feel in the late afternoon when I’ve finished a project or walked in the door after fighting traffic. I need a break. I need to unwind. The timing is a huge part of my cue. Between 4 and 4:30 I reach for a glass of milk and something to go with it: cookies and milk, brownies and milk, candy and milk. But with or without the milk, I want sweets.

Have a Plan
Formulating a new routine is key. Duhigg writes, “When I see the CUE, I will do a ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.” (The caps are his.)

If you’ve been tracking so far with the concept, how would you word your plan?

Mine might be worded as: when I see the CUE (it’s 4 p.m. and I feel the urge to unwind), I will do a ROUTINE (walk into a room other than the kitchen) in order to get a REWARD (engage in a favorite activity). Changing old routines will not only help us let go of bad habits, but will let us pursue interests we never have enough time for now. A win-win strategy. How well does it work? Let’s try it and see!

September 2014

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