Train the Mind to Build or Break Habits

Know the Habit Loop and How to Hack It

To change is easy to say, tough to follow. It is really difficult to stop doing something which we have been regularly doing, things we do without thinking twice. Mark Twain said, "Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I have done it thousands of times."
Think about something you learnt after giving a lot of effort and time. It could be riding the bike or swimming. But after you have learnt the skill, you have grown comfortable with riding and swimming. It has become much easier, or you may say 'habitual'. With habit, the brain acts in an auto-pilot mode.
Getting up early in the morning, exercising, brushing your teeth every morning and evening, and every other habit forming activity follow the same behavioral and neurological pattern. Over the time we tend to stick to activities that we do more regularly.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle.
Two things we need to know first about habit are that habits can be good or bad. The common belief that habit is the automatic reaction to a trigger is true only if the same has already occurred in the past. We would always like to continue with positive habits like having a glass of lukewarm water every morning in empty stomach or going for a short walk after lunch or dinner. On the other hand, we would want to break certain bad or negative habits like smoking, drinking, eating junk food or over-eating. Breaking habit is not at all an easy task, the same way as forming a new habit. At the same time we must always remember that our ability to break a bad or harmful habit leads us to formation of several good habits that can change our lives entirely.
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Image: representative image
While discussing about the 'habit loop' (the formation and destruction of habits) we must take the name of Charles Duhigg. This Pulitzer Prize winning business writer of New York Times introduced the concept of habit loop in his book "The Power of Habit". Here Duhigg discusses the science behind formation of habits in individuals, in communities, in business as well as in society.
The habit loop is basically a three part process: "the cue, the routine and the reward. Cue is the trigger factor that causes the particular behavior. Cue can be anything ranging from a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain location, time, current emotional state, a sequence of thoughts or company of particular people. For example, after waking up in the morning we like to have a cup of tea, or smell of a certain delicious food make us feel like having the same in our plate and as a result we end up by ordering for it.
Routine is the repeated behavior. Routines can be very complex or really simple. Those habits related to emotions are complex, such as, biting the nails out of anxiety or while thinking a difficult problem. It can also be as simple as taking a cup of tea or coffee because you are tired or scrolling through the social media because we have some free time. With time, this routine becomes automatic and this is due to the last component of the habit loop - "the reward.
We would always like to continue with positive habits like having a glass of lukewarm water every morning in empty stomach while we would want to break certain bad or negative habits like smoking, drinking, eating junk food or over-eating.
Reward is what the behavior does for us. It can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations to emotional satisfaction like the feeling of pride and happiness that comes from praise and appreciation by others for your acts. Some rewards benefit us, e.g., brushing our teeth rewards us with a clean and fresh mouth, appreciation of good work inspires us to do more and more good work for the society, going to gym makes us stronger, meditation calms us down and reduces blood pressure, eating more fruits and vegetables improves our overall health. On the contrary, some rewards can be really harmful over time. For instance smoking may lead to lung cancer, snacking leads to weight gain, procrastination prevents us from getting things done, negative self-talk leads to depression.
So what do we want? No doubt, more good habits and less bad habits. We are sum total of our habits. This implies that we can change our lives by changing our habits, and that has to happen one at a time.
Is there something that you just love to do and can't stop doing it regularly? Our morning tea that makes us feel refreshed and energized? We all want to learn how to be in control of our habits. Do we want to continue with certain habits or rather do away with it? How to hack the habit loop? It is quite difficult to break a habit but it is possible. We need to have a holistic approach to permanently deconstruct a habit. Lab studies reveal that it is never too late to break a habit. We need to understand the structure. Once we recognize the cue and the reward as well as the factors behind our behavior it becomes easier to change habit.
The golden rule of habit change, according to Charles Duhigg, is to change the routine. You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. For that we have to first identify the routine. For instance, we may be in the habit of sleeping late in the morning until it is too late to move to our workplace. Here the routine is to stop or snooze the alarm and roll in the bed to enjoy few more minutes of sleep. The reward could be: feeling more rested or staying warm in bed instead of facing a dark cold morning.
Now, craving for this more rest or comfort time could be replaced by another craving of a nice cup of tea or a work out that gives health benefit and make you more productive. We can also experiment with different rewards. In the above case, the cues were the location (the bed) and time (the alarm time in morning).
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Image: representative image
Sometimes the reward is to satisfy our craving for something new. The cue could be: whenever we have a little free time. The routine which is developed more often is to take out our smart phone and scroll through the endless social media feeds in Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram or Youtube. In the process, a considerable work hour may be wasted. If we realize this, we can replace our social media habit with reading a book or a small walk which will satisfy us in the short run and sets ourselves for success in the long run.
It is not always simple to isolate cues and rewards. For example, why do we snack? Is it because we are hungry, or munching something seems to relieve stress, or just because we are bored. Most of the time, it could be a mix of all.
Breaking down the habit loop helps us form productive routine that always stores rewards for us. An important point to remember while hacking this habit loop is to focus on why we want to change. Listing the reasons can be the motivating goals that can inspire us enormously.
Moreover, another method of sticking to break the routine is to practice mindfulness that helps us develop awareness around our thoughts, feelings and actions. The easier way of breaking a bad habit is to replace the routine with a different one instead of simply trying to stop the behavior. For instance, whenever we feel like snacking we can have some fruits instead of junk food. We can also leave ourselves reminders in form of small stickers or in the mobile phone. Above all, we have to start small aiming to change one habit at a time.

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