I often think about habits and the patterns that people subconsciously weave in their lives. Why are some people prone to unhealthy habits and addictive behaviors while others are not? What causes some people to change and others to become stagnant? What makes something healthy or unhealthy? Could something that is generally considered healthy be unhealthy? Most importantly, how can we change unhealthy behaviors to healthy habits?
Take, for instance, morning coffee. Everyday, I see a long line of people outside a popular coffee establishment on my way to work. Why waste that precious morning time? I know not to approach one of my coworkers before 10 AM in the morning because she hasn’t yet had her coffee. Whether coffee itself is healthy or not is controversial, but difficulty functioning without coffee certainly seems unhealthy, right? What about something that seems healthy like working out? Could over-working out be unhealthy? For argument’s sake, let’s just say that almost anything can be healthy or unhealthy. However, it is 1) the way we approach it, 2) how much we rely on it, and 3) how much it affects our ability to function everyday with normal tasks that can indicate whether or not a habit is healthy unhealthy.
Once a habit has been identified an unhealthy, how can it be changed?
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that people develop habits because they have an unmet need (or cue), which triggers the brain to start a routine to attain a reward. This is known as the habit loop. After a few times of going through the loop, the brain remembers the loop and automatically puts it into action.
For example, it’s 3:30 PM at your new job and you are feeling a bit restless, but don’t know anyone there. Your coworker asks you to take a coffee break. Although you may not feel like having coffee, you go anyway for the company and office gossip and indulge in a double latte. You come back satisfied. It’s now 12:23 AM as you stare at the alarm clock and you cannot sleep. You finally doze off at 2:18 AM. The next day, you feel a bit groggy. At lunchtime, however, you start to drag and feel bored again. At 3:00 PM, your coworker asks you to take a break and you head out for a coffee break with him. This is how a habit loop works. Your need for socialization led you to accept your coworker’s invitation to squelch the boredom (the cue) and satisfy your need to socialize (the reward). Although the need to socialize is not unhealthy in itself, taking a mid-afternoon coffee break is unhealthy if it keeps you up at night and affects your productivity the next day. Eventually, the cue and reward become so intertwined (not taking into account any addictive quality of certain substances) that you associate your need for socialization with that routine. The habit is formed.
Breaking a bad habit is almost impossible if: 1) you have not identified the true need or 2) there is no perceived reward in a new routine. If the new routine involves deprivation, the mind and body become acutely aware that the need is not being met and that there is no reward. For instance, when people try to quit smoking or stop eating unhealthy foods, they may not necessarily know what they are really seeking and often feel deprived when the new routine does not satisfy the need. According to Duhigg, the most effective way to change a habit is not to break it, but to replace the old habit loop with a new habit loop. This also explains why many people turn to another addiction after getting over one because they’ve simply replaced an old (unhealthy) routine with a new (unhealthy) routine. This is where first identifying an unhealthy vs. a healthy routine becomes essential. The steps to changing an unhealthy habit to a healthy one are:
- Identify the unhealthy habit and the harm it is causing.
- Identify the need / cue that the habit is satisfying.
- Find a different routine that would satisfy the need without the harm.
- Squeeze out the old routine by replacing it with a new cue and routine that still produces a desired reward.
- Repeat the new cue-routine-reward loop until the new healthy habit is formed.
A change does not need to involve a major change. Start small to build motivation. Often, small changes lead to big benefits. The best part about making that small change is that it can lead to bigger and better changes that seemed impossible to accomplish before.