Oxford defines a habit as “a thing that you do often and almost without thinking, especially something that is hard to stop doing.”
That second part is important.
You go to work to work every day because you have to, but you have that cup of coffee every morning, because you NEED to.
This is what makes something a habit.
Understanding how habits work gives us clues on how to break bad habits and develop good ones instead. And because habits are hard to give up, those good habits which once required disciplined effort, become routine.
This is all because habits run on a feedback loop. It begins with a trigger, which leads to the habit, and it finishes with a reward. The reward reinforces the behaviour and is the reason why habits are so hard to break.
For instance it’s 6am and you feel tired (the trigger), so you have a coffee (the habit), and the caffeine gives you a hit of energy (the reward).
Understanding this feedback loop allows you to hack it and break bad habits.
Here are some tips for breaking bad habits:
• Don’t go cold turkey
– take small steps. Breaking habits takes time, don’t deplete your motivation all at once by giving up every bad habit and starving your brain of its rewards. Focus on one habit at a time and reward yourself for not indulging in that habit.
• Target the triggers
– the habit follows the trigger, if you reduce or eliminate the trigger, the habit will follow.
• Replace the habit – if you like to eat chocolate whilst you watch TV, don’t just stop eating. Replace the chocolate with something else (ideally something healthier).
Now that you’ve got a plan to break your bad habits, it’s time to learn how you can use the feedback cycle to develop good habits.
• Reward yourself
– Sometimes the benefits of a good habit aren’t felt for months, so the feedback loop stalls. Rewarding yourself for good habits will keep the loop running until the benefits of the finally kick in.
• Use the process principle
– the process principle is derived from the ultimate fitness clichés, “Just Do It”, “Starting is the hardest part”. The process principle starts with an action, not a trigger or a plan. Act first, and reward yourself to kickstart the feedback loop.
• Surround yourself with supportive people
– if you were trying to give up smoking you wouldn’t hang around with people who smoke. The same goes for good habits too, if you want to exercise more, spend time with people who exercise more. Be vocal as well, if you tell people you are trying to lose weight, not only will supportive people encourage you, but they will hold you accountable.
So you’ve read this article and now you know all about habits, but what now?
Use the Process Principle! Act now and reward yourself, replace one bad habit from your routine with a good habit. Knowing the tips from this article isn’t enough. You need to actively implement them until the conscious effort becomes easy.
The process principle not only works for forming habits, but it is an effective technique to boost productivity and creativity as well.
If you found this article interesting and want to learn more on the topic of habits and ways to hack your own brain, I highly recommend the following books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.