Transforming Bad Habits Into Good Ones

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“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters” ~ Nathaniel Emmons

You know that tingly feeling you get when you brush your teeth? And that nice, rich foam you get when you shampoo your hair? Well, it turns out that, for those products to work effectively, neither the tingle nor the foam is really necessary. In fact, the chemicals that create the tingle in toothpaste, and the foam in shampoo, were added to these products solely for marketing purposes! And then the marketing campaigns for those products were designed in such a way that we would crave the tingle, and crave the foam, and such that we would not be satisfied until we had experienced them! As a result, marketers were more successful in changing dental hygiene habits than dentists were, and consequently, were responsible for vastly improved dental health. Marketers know an awful lot about human behaviour. Specifically they know how habits are formed. And that’s what I learned recently, by reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It by Charles Duhigg .

Habits develop because the brain is always looking for ways to save effort. And they’re not all bad! Without habits, our brains would be overwhelmed by the minutia of daily life. When routines become habits, our minds become more efficient. We don’t have to stop and think about whether to brush our teeth before or after our shower, or which shoe to put on first. We can divert that mental energy to more creative purposes.

The trouble is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits. That’s why it’s so hard to create exercise routines, for instance, or to change what we eat. If we’ve already developed a routine of sitting on the couch instead of running, or snacking every time we pass a donut box, those patterns are stuck in our heads. The good news is that habits are not destiny. Once you take control, and create a new pattern, you can transform those bad habits into good ones. Going for a jog or ignoring the donuts can become just as automatic as any other habit. These behaviours are easier to control once we understanding the “habit loop”.

What is the “habit loop”? Every habit has three components:

1. The Cue: This is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use

2. The Routine: What follows can be a physical, mental, or emotional routine.

3. The Reward: The reward is what helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time the cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of craving emerges, which triggers the response. It’s those cravings that drive habits; and figuring out what creates the cravings is the secret to creating new habits. Use the same cues, and get the same reward, but shift the routines.

That’s how AA and other 12-step programs work. The meetings and sponsors form a structure that forces alcoholics to identify the cues and rewards for drinking; and they provide the same rewards as drinking. However, they create new routines. Instead of drinking, members relax and talk through their anxieties. The pay-offs are the same, but the behaviours have changed.

If it works for them, it can work for you! What habit would you like to transform? Start by being more conscious. (Journaling can help here!) Break your habit down into the various components of the “habit loop”:

1. What are the cues or triggers that slip your brain into automatic?

2. What are the physical, mental or emotional rewards you crave? Note that these “rewards” may include “escape” or diversion!

3. What are the habitual routines you want to change? What routine can you substitute that will provide the same rewards?

Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick; it isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.