We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
How should you spend your time?
When at work, should you only work?
Should you start at the first thing on your list and keep going until you’re done?
Charles Duhigg’s book The Power Of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change uses lots of examples to illustrate a simple model.
We do things, he says, in a loop.
First, some kind of event sets you off.
He calls this a cue.
For example, your phone buzzing with a notification is a cue.
A cue can also feel like a trap. For example, if you’re hungry and you go to the supermarket seeing the chocolate aisle is like falling over a tripwire.
The cue triggers the start of a routine – actions you take one after another.
If the routine ends up giving you a pleasant rush, giving you a high, then the next time you encounter the cue that started it all you’ll start the same routine.
And that’s Duhigg’s habit loop.
When you get your head around this you start seeing examples everywhere.
If, when I drive back from work, I stop to fill the car with fuel the cue or trap is going into the shop to pay and seeing lots of chocolate.
The first trap is that buying some chocolate seems cheap when compared to the cost of fuel.
For example, if you’ve put 60 pounds in the tank what’s an extra pound for a bar?
Now, you might say just use your willpower and resist buying that chocolate.
But, when you’re tired or hungry late in the day, your willpower is exhausted and you can’t trust yourself.
Now, the trap is sprung. You fill up, pick up some chocolate and get a sugar rush.
And the next time you fill up it’s more than likely that you’ll do it again.
So, how do you escape from this habit?
In this example, what I do is avoid the trap in the first place.
I try not to fill up in the evenings when I’m tired and hungry but in the mornings when I’ve just had breakfast and my willpower reserves are full.
Avoidance or abstinence is a good rule for this kind of trap.
If you haven’t got it you can’t have it.
The next thing you can do is address the routine.
If you keep the cue the same and the reward the same but adjust what you do in the middle you can create good habits or break bad ones.
Take a simple act like planning what you’re going to do tomorrow at the end of today.
You could use the five minutes before closing time to jot down the top things you want to get done or keep a pad somewhere you know you’ll see it before turning in for the night.
The trick is finding what you can do that will give you a reward you know you like.
For example, you probably feel good after you’ve done some exercise.
If you go for a run first thing in the morning before you do anything else or change into your gym clothes at the same time each evening you can use a timing cue to kick start a routine.
You just need to experiment and figure out what works for you. Keep trying out things and you’ll find a look you can stick with and form a habit.
The last thing you can play with is the reward itself.
Normally, you’ll try and do something that gives you a pleasant feeling.
Some approaches, however, try and use negative feelings.
Some hypnosis approaches try and associate a cue with revulsion to stop habits like overeating or smoking.
At a more extreme level you might wear a device that gives you a mild shock when you see the cue.
Someone was trying to raise money to build that kind of device on Kickstarter and the is apparently quite effective.
If you get a shock when you reach for chocolate your brain learns very quickly to avoid and get away from that situation.
Maybe that’s a little extreme but the point is that there isn’t really that much we are trying to get right.
Health is probably top of the list, complemented by eating right. Doing meaningful work and spending our time with people we care about.
It’s so easy to get into bad habits, even simple ones like spending too much time watching TV or getting irritable with others.
Changing a habit, on the other hand, can be hard.
Duhigg’s model gives us an approach that might make it easier.