The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a book that explains the science of habit formation and change. It defines for us why habits are subconsciously created and how we can change existing habits to build better habits.
Habits form because our minds are always looking to save effort so we can remember and accomplish all the things we have to do every day. Habits make things happen in our life with next to no effort once they are established. In other words, habits free valuable space in our brains.
The book tells the story of a toothpaste known as Pepsodent and how it successfully started people brushing their teeth daily. We will use the example of brushing your teeth to show the process of habit formation.
As a child you have to be reminded by your parents to brush but after performing this task repeatedly a pattern begins to develop in your mind and it then becomes habitual. At first your brain must work hard to establish a cue from the environment to offer as a clue to what follows next in the pattern. This is identified as “the habit loop” requiring three steps to complete.
The first is the cue to tell your brain to enter the automatic mode and which habit to use. Second is the routine followed by the third step which is the reward. The reward tells you if you should remember this habit for future use. Let’s look at a common habit loop. You brush your teeth after your morning shower daily so you don’t forget. The cue is the shower, the routine is to brush your teeth and the reward is a clean mouth or fresh breath. Once this habit is established it takes no conscious effort on your part. It will just naturally happen, that is if you take daily showers. Now your mind has time to focus on other more important tasks. To understand how habits work is essential to making sustainable change in exercising, healthy nutrition and other things in life.
When seeking to make any type of change, it is best to only work on one habit at a time. Statistics show that if you tackle one habit your success rate is greater than 85% in making that habit permanent. If you try to work on two habits at the same time, those numbers fall to less than 35%. More than two it plummets to a less than 10% chance of succeeding.
An example is if you want to “break the habit” of drinking soda daily then simply work on drinking more water. If you currently are drinking soda with your meals (cue) then sub in a glass of water (routine) instead. You will save money and lose weight (reward) even if you drink diet soda. I would like to add to this that it is better to focus on building new or better habits than breaking old ones. This takes the negative out and keeps the action positive. By focusing on the positive action, it is then a more natural progression that the negative action will be eliminated. Another example would be to eat less refined carbohydrates and sugar by focusing your meals around lean protein and lots of vegetables. You will naturally have less room for carbohydrates, maintain a stable blood sugar, improved satiety and lose weight.
To get started building sustainable life-changing habits, identify a cue or trigger to attach your new habit to and work only on one habit at a time. Perform the habit for two weeks consistently and track your progress. If you slip, don’t give up, just start the process over until you achieve 14 days straight. Anyone can do anything for 14 days right? If you fail at your new habit, it maybe that it is too big a change and needs to broke into smaller steps. Start by just drinking water with one meal a day or giving up that afternoon soda you have after lunch to achieve success.
Remember success doesn’t usually come in a quick fix that will stick with you. It is better to be patient and consistent for sustainable change.