As the saying goes, human beings are creatures of habit. Charles Duhigg describes “the habit loop” in his intriguing book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. He identifies three essential components of any loop. There must be a cue that triggers a particular behavior, an actual routine that is performed, and then a reward that reinforces the behavior and makes it worthwhile. For any behavior to become a habit—something that sticks—it must contain all three elements of the habit loop.
Habits are powerful tools in our everyday lives, because they allow us to accomplish tasks without spending valuable cognitive energy or exhausting our self-control. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney argue that humans possess something akin to a willpower reserve. We only have so much energy on hand. When it’s gone we need to recharge. The good news is that willpower is also like a muscle. With repeated stress, we can gain strength and endurance through adaptation.
Duhigg builds upon similar research with a discussion of “keystone habits.” Interestingly, some small and basic habits can trigger a chain reaction that leads to massive behavioral change. He recounts a study in which subjects were asked to take one day out of each week and record everything they ate during that day. They weren’t asked to do anything else. However, researchers found that this simple activity led to significant behavioral change throughout the week and subsequent weight loss. This one little activity had a ripple effect throughout people’s lives that led them to make other health-conscious decisions such as eating less, eating better, and exercising. Another interesting keystone habit is making the bed in the morning, something the military has long known. Just making the bed in the morning can make you more productive throughout the day. Once these habits become part of our daily lives, we effectively go on autopilot, and our willpower is conserved for other activities.
You can already see how harnessing your habits can be a desirable skill. Adopting new habits—especially those of the keystone variety—can lead to greater personal effectiveness. That’s the positive side of things. What about the negative? What can we do about our existing bad habits?
This is where Duhigg’s book becomes really interesting. He argues that it’s possible to hack existing habits by interrupting their existing loops. You can use the same cue and reward but replace the routine. I’ve done this with my morning routine. Previously, when my alarm went off, I’d hit the snooze three or four times, then I’d get out of bed and scan RSS feeds, Twitter, and process emails. This proved to be a terrible way to start the day. It short circuited my mind and promoted a short attention span. So I interrupted the habit loop. Now when the alarm sounds, I get out of bed, change into my workout clothes, and head downstairs immediately to begin writing in my journal. I then get everything to together and jump on the bike trainer in the basement, or head to the gym for a swim, run, and/or weight lifting session.
I think you’ll be interested in Duhigg’s findings. He’s written a more detailed description of how habits work on his website. Read it and then dive into the book.