In the workplace and in life, we are little more than the sum of our habits. Who we are and what we achieve depends largely on a set of routines and behaviours that we carry out with little to no thought whatsoever.
Habits, rather than conscious decision-making, can shape as many as 45% of the choices we make every day.
Habits are the brain’s way of ensuring maximum productivity with minimal energy. Constantly striving for more efficiency, the brain quickly transforms as many tasks and behaviours as possible into habits so that we can do them without thinking, thus freeing up more brainpower to tackle new challenges.
In general, this process leads to incredible benefits but it can make it seem nearly impossible to consciously break bad habits—or integrate new ones.
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg does a deep dive into the science of habits to explain how they work and how we can change them. It’s a fascinating read that crisply breaks down the habit-formation process, and—perhaps more importantly—the habit-changing process.
How Habits Get Formed.
When we begin a new task, our brains are working hard—processing tons of new information as we find our way. As soon as we understand how a task works, the behaviour starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases considerably.
How Habit Loops Work.
Habits consist of a simple, but extremely powerful, three-step loop. Duhigg says “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges”.
How to Change a Habit.
The first rule of habit-changing is that you have to play by the rules. There’s no escaping the three-step loop (e.g. cue, routine, reward) because it’s hard-wired into our brains.
If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. When you’re trying to get the new routine integrated into your life, don’t be afraid to dwell on the rewards.
Of course, it’s not simple. As we all know, forming new habits is hard. Just because you’re telling your brain that there’s a reward, doesn’t meant the habit will stick. It only really sinks in when—through enough repetition—your brain comes to crave the reward. Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, are not enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the high or sense of accomplishment-—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
How to Maintain a New Habit.
But that’s still not everything. We’ve all managed to implement new habits for a month or two, only to have them compromised when we’re under extreme stress. If we truly want to avoid backsliding into our old ways, there’s a final key ingredient: Belief. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group,” says Duhigg.
Groups create accountability and belief—key ingredients in helping us stick with new habits. Thus, if you want to write more, consider joining a writing group. If you want to run more, consider joining a running club. The more positive reinforcement you can surround yourself with, the easier it will be to make difficult changes.