- Published on Tuesday, 19 June 2012 07:38
- Written by Jonathan Story
- Hits: 296
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes a framework of four steps through which a bad habit can be changed. Duhigg cautions that there is no single solution, but rather that analysis and experimentation within a general framework will be effective in many cases. Using this approach, changing some habits will prove very easy while other habits will require more effort, and others still may become an ongoing process.
The framework is composed of the following steps: first, identify the routine; next, experiment with rewards; then, isolate the cue; and finally, have a plan.
1. Identify the Routine
Habits can be broken down to three components: a cue of some sort, a routine, and a reward. To come to grips with your own habits, first identify what these components are, then you can look for ways to replace undesired routines with new ones.
The example that Duhigg provides was his habit of buying a cookie every afternoon. He identified his routine as getting up from his desk, going to the cafeteria, buying a cookie and eating it while talking with friends. Less obvious, however, were the cue and the reward. Was the cue hunger? boredome? the need for a break? Was the reward the cookie? Or was it the brief distraction, or the socializing? Identifying these can require some experimentation.
2. Experiment With Rewards
It isn't always obvious which cravings drive a given habit. Finding the answer may require some experimentation, using different rewards. This phase may take only a few hours, or it may take days or even weeks. The idea during this time is not to feel pressured to make a permanent change, but to acquire data.
For example, using Duhigg's cookie habit, when you get the urge to go and buy a cookie, change the routine to get a different reward. This might mean taking a walk around the block instead, or you might try getting a candy bar instead of a cookie and eating it at your desk instead of talking with friends. Another time, you might try to buy an apple instead of a cookie, and eat it while talking with your friends. There are a lot of variations, and the idea is to try things besides the cookie in order to see which craving is driving the routine. If the craving is hunger, for example, then an apple should do just as well; if it is the rush of energy provided by the cookie, then coffee should also work.
After trying a few different rewards, write down the first three words that come into your head when you get back to your desk. Then, set an alarm for fifteen minutes later. When it goes off, ask yourself if you still feel the urge for that cookie. The reason for writing down the words is to force a brief awareness of your feelings or thoughts. Then, at the end of the experiment, when reviewing your notes it will be easier to remember what was in your thoughts at the exact time. The reason for the fifteen-minute alarm is to help narrow the reward that you are craving. If, for example, you still crave a cookie, even after eating a doughnut, then what is driving the habit is not a craving for a sugar high.
3. Isolate the Cue
Given all the things that are happening around us at the same time, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly which are the cues that trigger our habits. When we eat breakfast at the same time every day, is it because it is a particular time or because we are hungry? Are other people already eating, or is it the act of getting dressed that starts the habit?
In order to find the cue in the midst of the noise, research has found that most can be grouped into five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. Therefore, in order to find the cue for the cookie habit, note the answers to these five things as soon as the urge to get a cookie arises. After a few days, the pattern exposing the cue may emerge.
4. Have a Plan
Once you have figured out the elements of the habit — the cue, the routine, and the reward — you can begin to change to a more desired routine. Having identified the reward, you can begin to replace the old undesirable routine with a new routine that reaches the same reward. For example, with the cookie habit, if the cue was found to be the time of 3:30 in the afternoon, and the reward was simply the distraction that getting a cookie gave, then one could begin to change the routine from getting a cookie to some other type of distraction. This might be, for example, getting up and looking around for someone to talk to. Some habits can be more difficult than others to change, but this framework is a good starting place.