The Surprisingly Simple Way to Build Strong Habits

Why Are Habits So Hard to Change?

Have you ever wondered why some habits are so difficult to change, why doing them requires no conscious thought, and why changing that behavior is so difficult? Habit construction can help you solve that dilemma.

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A common perception in western culture, particularly in the U.S., is that failure to overcome a “bad” habit somehow means that you don’t really want to change, or that you simply aren’t trying hard enough. While motivation certainly plays a role in your habits, physiology and habit construction is a key factor that is not well understood by many people.

There is no magic formula for eliminating bad habits, and any diet, fitness or other self-help program that claims it can show you how to do just that is lying. In fact the idea of eliminating any habit at all is a fallacy.

Once the neural pathways that create a habit are formed in your brain, they never go away. The habit may weaken over time, or be overpowered by a new, stronger one, but it never disappears. That is why it is so easy to pick a habit back up, even if you haven’t been doing it for months or even years.

It's just like riding a bike

The common phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” is actually true. Once you have done something thousands of times, to the point that you can literally do it without thinking about it, you can stop doing it for many years and still pick it back up with almost no learning curve.

Many habits initially form due to convenience at the time, but quickly become the norm. Do you regularly stop at the same gas station on your way home from work to fill up? Chances are, you stopped there the first time for a specific reason, and you continue to stop there simply out of habit. Do you tend to cycle through the same 7 or 8 outfits in your closet, even though you have another 10 or 12 (or 20?) that fit you and look just as good? It’s probably simply out of habit.

When you want to replace a habit with something less destructive, more useful, or more in line with your goals, you need to intentionally design a new habit that actually has a chance of sticking.

How do you construct a new habit, you ask?

What Is Habit Construction?

When you understand how habits are formed, and how the components fit together, it is much easier to create a habit that has at least a fighting chance of replacing the one that is not helping you.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes the process for breaking an existing habit down into its component parts, and using that information to design a new habit. Be aware, this is a process. As I mentioned above, there is no quick fix to replacing a habit you have spent months or often years reinforcing in your brain. You must be willing to put forth some effort. If you’re not, you can stop watching this video right now. But if you are, this process can work.

The components of every habit in your brain are: Cue → Routine → Reward. This is what's know as the " habit loop ".

Using the habit construction process

The first step of habit construction is to identify the routine that is causing the problem. This step is usually the easiest part of the process, because it’s the most obvious. Let’s say you have a habit of checking Facebook too often while at work, and it’s affecting your productivity. That behavior would be the routine that you are using to give yourself some kind of reward.

Step two of habit construction is to identify the craving that is driving the reward-seeking behavior. To figure this out, you need to come up with a few different hypotheses of what desire is driving the behavior, and then come up with a few different rewards to test them.

In our Facebook example, you might guess that your habit is a response to either boredom, avoidance of a certain task or type of work, or a craving for human interaction. For each of these hypotheses, you would identify a replacement reward that satisfies each of the potential cravings.

For example, if the habit is truly a desire for human interaction, when you find yourself clicking onto your Facebook page, get up from your desk and go talk to a friend for a few minutes instead. Then, immediately after giving yourself the alternate reward, write down on a piece of paper the first three or four feelings, ideas or things that pop into your mind. Don’t worry if they seem random, they are just mental triggers for you to use later when reviewing your different responses to the various rewards.

After you have done this “brain dump”, set a timer for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, notice whether you still have the original craving. If the answer is yes, then whichever reward you tested is not the object of your craving. Keep repeating this process until you are confident you have identified the craving that it is the source of the habit. Once you know that, you can move onto step three of the process, which is to find the cue that is triggering the habit.

There are practically an infinite number of things that can trigger a habit, but they generally fall into one of these major categories:

  • Where was I?
  • What time was it?
  • What was my emotional state?
  • What other people did I interact with? (including phone calls, emails, text messages, etc)
  • What happened or what was I doing?

The process for finding the cue that drives your habit is to notice every time the craving gets triggered, and then immediately write down your answer to each of the above questions. Once you have collected some data on your habit (the amount you need will vary with each habit), you can review it to look for patterns that tell you what in your environment or mind is triggering the habit.

In our Facebook example, if you have determined that the craving that drives your habit is a desire for human interaction, you might find that it’s triggered by a task that you don’t enjoy.

Armed with this knowledge, you can move to the final phase of the habit construction process; designing a replacement habit. The idea is to create what’s called an implementation intention for your new habit. It is basically a micro-plan that states what you will do when the craving gets triggered. Using our Facebook habit as an example, you could design a plan that says:

“Whenever I complete task xyz, I will walk over to a friend’s desk and chat for five minutes.”

Following through on your implementation intention is made easier if it is time-based, in which case you can set a reminder for yourself. For anything else, it will take some practice for you to notice the trigger and make a conscious choice to follow through with your plan. But every time you do remember, you will be building a new neural pattern in your brain that will eventually replace the old one.

Don’t expect instant results or get upset with yourself when it doesn’t happen. You didn’t build your existing habit overnight, so it will take time and effort to replace it.

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