“I love this cup.” I said through the steam rising out of the fancy tea cup* I had just sipped from. I stared down at the tea leaves floating in the mesh strainer that so neatly fit inside the cup and placed the matching lid on top to complete the look.
“Yeah, Jaime got really into drinking tea at one point and she kept leaving her tea bags all over the place. It was really annoying. Instead of trying to get her to throw those stupid bags away I just bought these mugs and some loose leaf tea. Now Jaime never wants to use tea bags and only drinks out of the mugs.” my friend said.
Ingenious. With one action my friend had completely skipped the hassle of trying to change someone’s habit or even worse, confronting them about it.
At the time I had no clue, but this process is something that can be replicated on any scale and in any situation. It wasn’t until I read The Power of Habit* by Charles Duhigg that I realized how habits work, and how changing them can be a lot easier than you think.
Importance of Habits
Studies have shown that developing habits allows us to use less brain power, freeing up said brain power for other, more important things. Think about it, most of us have a morning routine. But what happens when you wake up late and your whole routine is thrown out of whack? A lot of times, it ruins your whole day, right? You forget things or maybe you screw other things up.
You had to use extra brain power in the morning because you had do do things outside of your regular routine. Using that extra power wears out your brain more, so you aren’t on top of your game for the rest of the day.
At work, I once forgot to enter an entire slideshow into our graphics computer. The graphics were supposed to air during a live taping of a city council meeting. Needless to say, they didn’t air that night. The reason I forgot? We got a new graphic program and instead of typing the words in by hand, I had to import them from another file. I wasn’t used to the new routine so I completely missed the most important step.
Use Habits To Your Advantage
In his book, Duhigg says:
“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit-unless you find new routines-the pattern will unfold automatically.
Knowing this, you can use habits to help shape different parts of your life.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they’re great at eating healthily during the week but when the weekend rolls around, they go nuts. Why do you think that is? On the weekends, you usually aren’t in the same routine as you are during the weekdays. Most people don’t have to go to work so they sleep in later. Instead of having a set schedule, you have a free day, and you have to use more brainpower figuring things out.
To make things easier on yourself, you could try to make sure you’re sticking with your good habits even when you don’t have to. This could mean getting up at an earlier time and making breakfast since that’s what you normally do on work days or maybe it even means forming weekend (or off day) habits to make sure you stay on track.
If you understand how a habit works, it’s much easier to change or modify the habit.
The Components of a Habit
According to the book, a habit consists of three parts.
For example, if you have the habit of drinking coffee every morning when you wake up, your cue would be waking up. The routine would be making and drinking coffee, and the reward would be delicious coffee.
By recognizing these three parts of a habit, we can make changing them much easier.
What’s one habit you’d like to change? Now that you’ve got that habit in your head, think about what makes that happen. Let’s take the example of stopping at a fast food restaurant on your way home from the gym to get some food.
Why are you stopping to get food? Obviously, your stomach is grumbling. You likely haven’t eaten since lunch time and maybe you weren’t even thinking about food because you were so busy working and then working out. Your cue is the feeling of being hungry.
You feel hungry and think about how you have no food in your house to eat. Then you think, “I just worked out, I need to eat IMMEDIATELY.” So you stop at Taco Bell and get a sloppy meat/corn concoction and scarf it on your way home. That’s your routine. Stopping at a fast food restaurant to get some sort of food shaped mystery item to eat.
Once you’re done eating, while you feel dissatisfied because you realize that real Mexican food tastes much better and probably wouldn’t completely negate any work you’ve just done at the gym, you also feel satisfied because you’re no longer hungry and you don’t have to think about what food to make once you get home. That’s your reward.
- Cue: Feeling hungry on the way home from the gym.
- Routine: Stopping at a fast food restaurant to get something to eat.
- Reward: No longer feeling hungry.
Change It Up
Your cue and reward likely won’t change because everyone gets hungry and wants to not be hungry any more. So you could then focus on changing your routine. If you know you get hungry on the way home from the gym every day, you could keep a snack in your car that will tide you over until you get home. This would change your routine from stopping at a fast food restaurant to grabbing a snack (maybe some nuts, jerky, or dried fruit) you’ve already got waiting for you in your car. Then, when you get home you won’t be starving and making food that’s a little more nutritious won’t seem so urgent and daunting.
I’ve used this information to help change some of my less appealing habits. Changing the cue is really the easiest way for me.
I’ve never made my bed in my entire life. 25 years and I’ve never once made my bed after waking up. Sometimes I made it when I cleaned my room but honestly, until recently, I could count the number of times I’d made my bed on two hands. Once I read this book, I decided I wanted to test the information and see if I could make my bed every single day as soon as I woke up….so I identified the components of my habits upon waking. This is what I came up with:
- Cue: My alarm clock on my phone next to my bed wakes me up.
- Routine: Get up, go into the kitchen and make coffee.
- Reward: Yummy coffee.
I’d previously tried to just remember that I wanted to make my bed before making coffee but that worked all of one times. So I decided I needed to change my cue (phone alarm) to remind myself that I had to make my bed before going to make coffee. Instead of setting the alarm on my phone next to my bed, I started setting the alarm on my tablet which I left on my dresser across the room from my bed.
When I woke up in the morning, the fact that I had to turn off a different alarm than usual reminded me that I wanted to make my bed before I left my room.
Guess what. I started this about four months ago and I’ve made my bed every single morning since then. Okay, I actually missed a couple days in there, mostly on weekends when I didn’t use an alarm to wake up, but a few hours later when I walked into my room it just felt like something was wrong. I realized it was because I hadn’t made my bed. A new habit had been formed!
My habit now looks like this:
- Cue: My alarm clock on my tablet across the room wakes me up.
- Routine: Get up, turn off alarm, make bed.
- Reward: Once I’ve made my bed I get to go make coffee.
Stick With It
Once you’ve established a new pattern, it’s important to continually do it. That’s how a habit is formed, by repeating the actions until they become automatic. Maybe you’ve heard that it takes 21 days of repeatedly doing something before it becomes a habit…and maybe that’s true. But here’s something super important I learned from The Power of Habit: your old habits never go away.
Sucks, right? NEVER. Studies of the brain have shown that even when you develop new habits, your old ones still exist. If you think about it, it makes total sense. Have you ever been doing super great with a change you made only to fall back into your old habits without even noticing?
Maybe you were doing really great with your eating habits. You had finally stopped eating fast food after the gym because every time you went grocery shopping, you bought a bag of dried fruit that you kept in your car to snack on on the way home. Then one day, you forget to buy that fruit and you’re starving on the way home from the gym so you stop and get some fast food. Next thing you know, it’s been a month and you’re back to your old ways.
This is because you haven’t erased your old habit, you’ve just formed a new one. If you don’t follow your new habit pattern, you fall right back into the old habit.
Never Two In A Row
“I’ll be doing great and I’ll go running every day when I get out of work for half an hour and then all of a sudden, one day I can’t go running and then it just completely ruins everything.”
I hear this constantly. Or maybe it sounds more like this:
“I was doing so well on my diet and not eating any fast food but then I had to stay late at work one day so I had to get dinner from Wendy’s and ever since then my whole diet’s been ruined.”
I don’t get it. You missed one day, BIG DEAL!!!!. If you’re driving down the highway on your way to the movies and you miss your exit do you say, “Well, screwed that one up, guess I’m never going to the movies.” and turn around and go home only to never see a movie again? No, you turn around and get off on the right exit.
You’re allowed to make mistakes, miss a day, or do something unhealthy sometimes. Everyone does it. I’m going to eat cake today. Yeah, that’s right. Cake. With gluten. Since I ate that cake, I’m just going to give up on my healthy lifestyle all together and go back to my old ways of eating nacho chips with low-fat cheese and a side of moosetracks ice cream for dinner.
NO. I’m going to make sure that tomorrow I eat healthy, nutritious, well-balanced meals. Why? Because I want to eat cake sometimes, and that’s okay. I just don’t let it happen continually. By never letting myself do things twice in a row, I stop myself from falling back into old habits. Chances are, if I ate junk today and tomorrow…I’d probably eat junk the day after that. Which is why I don’t.
What Change Do You Want To Make?
Is there a habit you’ve had for a while that you want to change? What are the parts of that habit and how will you work toward changing them? Let me know in the comments!
My next habit I want to change is my writing habit. I’m trying to be consistent with writing every day for at least 20 minutes. I’m having a hard time figuring out a cue because my schedule is sort of erratic so it’s difficult to find a time to write that will be the same every day. I’m working on it. Just gotta figure it out.
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