How do our habits define us? Well, far more than you might think actually. We humans seem to have this notion that we are autonomous, aware beings pretty much in control, if not of our lives, then certainly of our decisions. However, nothing could be further than the truth.
If that sounds a little bit doom and gloom, I apologise – I didn’t mean to destroy your self – image in two sentences! The truth is that it is vital that we don’t think about a lot of our decisions – we make around 35,000 a day, 227 about food alone! (1: www.raywilliams./neuroscience-can-help-us-make-better-decisions/ ) if we had to think about all of them we’d never get anything done. So the vast majority of our decision – making process gets outsourced to what can best be described as the non-thinking part of the brain. Eventually these behaviours become habits. You don’t think about getting dressed, brushing your teeth, eating your breakfast etc. You just do them. And there will be many more habits personal to you, both beneficial and harmful, that you are doing often without a great deal of thought.
In my job, I deal with habits all the time. In my life I have formed and re-formed different habits without really knowing how. So I decided to learn a little more about how habits are created and broken and the first thing I learned is that habits aren’t really broken at all but replaced. Much of what follows is based on Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’ (2) and I thoroughly recommend reading it for a more detailed insight into how habits work.
Duhigg describes what he calls the habit loop: cue, routine, reward. So for brushing your teeth it might be 730am (cue) brush teeth (routine) teeth and mouth feel better (reward). All habits follow this pattern. To change the habit, we need to target the middle bit: the cue will usually always be there because to remove that is to attempt to change another habit, and if a certain time of day is the cue then you have no chance! The reward is also necessary: one of the reasons so many diets fail is because people end up miserable on them. Let’s look at the habit loop of an emotional over-eater:
Cue: Something upsetting happens (this could be anything from the death of a loved one to not getting any ‘likes’ on your Insta!)
Routine: Eat very tasty but very unhealthy food
Reward: Feel better (for a short time, but inevitably end up feeling crap for it again, thus re-starting the entire habit loop!)
The key here is we can’t change the cue or routine. Upsetting things happen and, importantly, emotional over-eaters don’t just eat because they’re unhappy – any emotion can trigger it! We also can’t change the need for reward. We can only target the routine. To do this of course you first need to be aware of it. Then the process becomes one of finding other things that make you feel better, other than food.
If this all sounds too simple, trust me it isn’t! Your brain will want to take you back to that same routine over and over again. The key is practice, and for a short time, understanding how to suffer. One of the biggest causes of failing to form new habits is that humans are very bad at understanding short – term suffering: we think ‘if it’s going to be this bad then what’s the point?’ Well the point is that it won’t. It will feel strange and uncomfortable but as long as you have some degree of reward (even if it’s just a slight alleviation of suffering) it will get better as the new habit becomes embedded. To give an example here’s an example of the habit loops that helped me quit smoking:
Cue: take your pick! After a meal, night out, finishing work – the list goes on!
Reward: Feel less stressed / calmer
And here’s how it changed
Cue: As above
Routine: Chew gum and straws
Reward: Feel slightly less stressed / calmer!
Was this easy? Hell no! And I could get through a packet of straws a night and box of nicorettes a week. It was suffering…but it got better. And I formed new habits to help such as keeping a journal of how much money I’d saved as well as how my vital organs were improving! This obviously helped to improve my sense of reward and alleviated suffering so it’s worth remembering that our over-eater may want to form new habits to distract and alleviate their own suffering as well as improving that sense of reward.
The two habits discussed here are obviously two of the most widespread damaging habits that people struggle to change. Although I’ve discussed emotional over-eating, any form of over-eating will follow the same cue/routine/reward loop. The key is firstly to identify the habit loop in it’s entirety – if you’re doing something, anything that is detrimental to your health, wealth or happiness it will be steeped in this habit loop. Identify that and you have the knowledge to re-create the loop and form brand new beneficial habits along the way.
Look out for next month’s blog on keystone habits as a follow up and I wish you all the best in helping to form successful, happiness generating habits.
By the way, I still chew way too much gum, although I quit straws a long time ago: save the turtles people!