Our Habits Are Powerful (Continued)

We have already discussed how habits work, now we will learn how to create new habits and how to change existing habits. Following is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg summarized and based on information from Faster to Master.  

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.”

Nathan Azrin

How to Create a Habit

Old Habits – New Habits drawn with yellow arrows on chalkboard

Duhigg says to first identify the desired response and remember it is important to work on one new change at a time. These new habits need willpower, and as we learned willpower is limited. Start so small that it hardly requires any willpower. It is difficult to go from no workouts a week to working out in the gym 4 days a week. But if you start with just 5 minutes a day, EVERY DAY, then you will establish the habit of exercise and you can increase it.

Don’t increase the effort before it has become a natural part of what you do daily. You must make the habit easy to follow through by planning, preparing, and doing what you can in advance to make the new response easy to complete (e.g. put gym clothes on as soon as you awake for your exercise routine and/or lay things out the night before).

Next, select a cue. You can choose one or more of the following to establish as a cue for your response: 

  • Location – somewhere unique that supports this habit (e.g., a library for studying)
  • Timing – a regular time each day/week works best
  • Emotional state – is the trigger for this new habit excitement? anger? anxiety?
  • Other people – who will trigger the new habit? a spouse? a colleague? a friend?
  • Directly preceding sensation, thought, or action – what series of steps will trigger this response? Is it another habit?

Visualize the cue and plan out/rehearse the exact response to it in your head. Then design some rewards and treat yourself. Use something that makes you feel good, like a small piece of chocolate, a new outfit, or chatting with friends. Be thoughtful about what new habits this reward itself might create. Establish support networks by finding people to tackle the habit and/or check-in with to keep you motivated. Visualize your desired outcome and remind yourself of it often. Write a clear visualization of your end goal, print a photo, save a video, etc. Track progress and celebrate small wins. Small wins reinforce the behavior and create a positive cycle of belief in change.

Commit yourself to your new resolution on paper. Those who write resolutions are ten times more likely to complete them. Track streaks of completed responses because the threat of breaking a long streak is a simple yet powerful motivator. Make a public commitment, especially to your weak-ties (acquaintances and communities). Choose people whose opinion you care about but who are not so close they won’t judge you if you fail. Finally, practice your new habit cycle every day for 30 days.

Creating a New Habit Myself 

Duhigg says to start with one habit at a time and I have wanted to create the habit of writing daily – in my journal for fun or working on my next blog post. I took his advice and start small. I’m still home with my four kids, including my 3yo son, who does not let me out of his sight for long. I can have the girls help me for at least two hours a day, so I started there. 

The cue I chose was timing. I had the girls watch Trey from 11 am to 1 pm during the weekdays so I can write, work on my Juice Plus business, work from home on my Crawley Law Firm duties, and do chores around the house without a toddler distracting me. I visualize the cue (11 am) and I don’t allow any distractions until I have finished writing for at least 30 minutes. 

The reward I treat myself with is a brand new journal after I have completed writing in my current one. I enjoy buying cute journals for myself. My support network comprises my friends, family, and other readers of my blog posts. Next, he suggests that I visualize the desired outcome and remind myself of it often. I have a reminder on my phone and I have the time blocked on my calendar. I’ve heard that if it isn’t on your calendar going to be accomplished. 

Clear visualization of my end goal is to publish a blog post bi-weekly or for sure monthly. I have been tracking my progress and so far I have done well and made positive strides toward achieving this new goal. I have committed this new goal on paper (in my journal). Duhigg says to track the streaks because they motivate us to NOT break the streak (anyone on Snapchat knows this is true. Right now I have a 706-day streak. LOL). I am making a public commitment to you (my readers) to continue this habit of writing. I have read in other places that it takes around 21 days to establish a new habit and Duhigg recommends 30 days. 

How to Change a Habit (caveat: There is no single formula to change a specific habit).

Every person has different cravings and drivers for the same routines/behaviors. Some habits are simple to break down, while others are complex and require prolonged study. Also, some habits change quickly, but others are much harder. 

Start by choosing the existing response that you want to change (e.g., snacking, web browsing, smoking, waking up late, or nail-biting).

You can experiment with rewards. Some rewards are often obvious in retrospect, but hard to uncover (e.g. snacking mid-afternoon may be more about taking a break than the need for sugar). Give yourself a few days, a week, or even longer, and don’t put yourself under pressure to change in this period, you’re just collecting data. Adjust your responses to test different rewards and determine the craving driving your routine. (e.g., eat an apple instead of a cookie, take a break and socialize instead of snacking).

After the response, jot down the first three sensations, emotions, or thoughts on your mind. This creates momentary awareness and helps with recall later. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Give the response and reward time to take effect. Review your notes and ask yourself if you still feel the same urge. If not, then you have found the reward that satisfies your craving. If yes, the reward is something else, try again.

It’s important to isolate the cue. Like rewards, cues are often obvious in retrospect but hard to uncover. Each time you feel the cravings arise, make a quick note of where you are, what time it is, how you feel, who else is around, what you’ve just been doing or thinking about. Review your notes for patterns to identify the cues for your craving.

Many cues are directly within our control and the quickest way to stop a response is to eliminate the cue (e.g. block websites, delete apps, disable notifications, end relationships). Eliminating cues is powerful because it requires no willpower. If you can not eliminate the cue, then you can design an alternative response that delivers the same reward because some cues are not possible or practical to eliminate (e.g., times of day, location of work, and colleagues).

Changing One of My Bad Habits

I started by choosing the response I wanted to change – reducing my time on social media (to less than 1 hour a day). The reward I chose was spending “phone-free” time with my toddler. I realized that when he wanted me to play “trains” with him, I had my phone in my hand looking at Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. This was not bringing either of us JOY. When my 3yo said, “Mommy, put your phone down and play with me”  I realized there was a colossal problem.

I started by not looking at social media when I first awake. I read 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life with some friends at the beginning of quarantine, and I realized my morning routine was not ideal. The first 15 minutes of your day are precious because the stressors of the day have not set in and your mind is open for learning. So, instead of hopping on Facebook, I now read a bible study on my phone (First 5 App), pray, and thank God for my blessings. I have also added time writing in a gratitude journal (list of 3-5) to remind myself of all the amazing things going right in my life. 

The cue for me to pick up my phone to look at social media was the phone being so close and available for me to access. Even throughout the day, my phone is usually within reach, so it’s easy to look at it ALL THE TIME! But, this act of spending multiple hours of my day looking at social media wasn’t making me happy or feel good about myself or my life. I eliminated the cue (remove the Facebook app from the phone). If I wanted to see what was happening on social media, then I had to go to my desktop or laptop to login. 

After a month of not having the app on my phone, I added it back, but I turned off notifications and the app is not on my home screen. I have enjoyed this time OFF my phone so much that now I leave it in the other room and don’t even miss it! I feel more connected with my close friends and family. 

As you can see, the act of creating a new habit and changing an unwanted habit is definitely possible. Change is not always easy, but once we know about cues, rewards, and how much better we feel once the new habit is established or an old habit is changed, then it’s all worth the effort! Message me and let me know what habits you are working to create or change!