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The Psychology Behind Habits

Ever wondered how habits are formed?

In his book The Power of Habit, the New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg explains that every habit is governed by a neurological loop, or the “habit loop,” that is made up of three elements:

  1. Cue. This is anything that triggers the habit and tells your brain to go into automatic mode. For example, the smell of coffee as you’re passing a coffee shop.

  2. Routine. The habit itself. For example, going into a coffee shop and buying coffee.

  3. Reward. Something that makes the brain remember the behavior, for example, the caffeine boost from coffee.

Do a particular thing enough times, and the part of the brain that makes decisions will go into sleep mode. The result? Your behavior will become automatic.

How to give up a bad habit

We’ve all got them. So how do you give a bad habit up? By breaking the existing habit loop. Here’s how you can do that:

1. Identify the routine

For Duhigg, the habit he wanted to break was his daily afternoon visit to the cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie and a chat with friends.

2. Experiment with rewards

This is the most time-consuming part of breaking the habit loop.

For Duhigg’s chocolate chip habit, the first thing that came to his mind when he tried to figure out what “reward” his brain was instinctively seeking when he kept buying chocolate chip cookies was chocolate.

But he realized that the reward could also have been the ensuing social interaction with his colleagues, the temporary distraction from work, the change of scenery, the energy that comes from eating the sugar-laden cookie, or even something else completely. Yep, we meant it when we said this part was tough.

Every time you feel like you’re going to go back to your habit, try changing either the thing you do or the reward, or both. For example, instead of going to the cafeteria, go for a walk. Or, go to the cafeteria but instead of buying a cookie, talk to your friends without buying anything.

At this point, you’re supposed to ask yourself: do I still want the cookie? If you had replaced your cookie with a walk and you still want a cookie, then you weren’t just craving for a distraction from work. Maybe you did actually really want the cookie. Or maybe you wanted the social interaction. The experiment continues.

3. Isolate the cue

Once you know what drives your habit (in Duhigg’s case it was social interaction), it’s time to figure out the cue. Cues generally fit into one of five categories:

  • Time of day.

  • Other people.

  • Location.

  • Emotional state.

  • Immediately preceding action.

The idea here is that next time you feel the urge to go to the cafeteria for a chocolate chip cookie, write down an answer to all of the above. Repeat the next day and the next. Then, compare and see if any of the categories match day in day out. For Duhigg, the cue was time -- he wanted a cookie at 3.30 pm every day.

4. Have a plan

Now that you know what drives our habits, you can try changing them.

Knowing that he didn’t actually want a cookie but rather distraction and social interaction, Duhigg stopped going to the cafeteria. Instead, he set an alarm for 3.30pm (his cue) every day as a reminder to go over to a friend’s desk and talk. It wasn’t always easy — he slipped up a few times, but after a while, the habit of seeking out a friend at 3.30 pm instead of going to the cafeteria for a cookie became automatic.

Tip: According to Duhigg, when people perform specific behaviors automatically (like brushing their teeth), they do so exactly the same way every time except when they’re on holiday. The reason for that is pretty simple: as our cues change, so do our patterns. Duhiggs’ recommendation? Try changing your habits while on vacation.

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