The Secret to Habit Change

One the biggest problems I see when people try to change habits is their focus on the wrong things. They decide they’re going to stop doing something like smoking, or start doing something like exercising, and simply focus on what they’re going to change. 

They picture themselves successfully having realised new heights of productivity and success at work and home, and strike out to achieve their goals.

The problem is, most people simply focus on what they want to change, rather than how they are going to change it. That’s where the habit loop comes in.  

Habits are automatic behaviours we don’t even think about. That’s one reason why 45 per cent of the decisions we make each day result from habit. 

Sustainable changes of habit need to be slow, with short incremental steps. Repetition builds capability and behavior becomes automatic over time.  

That’s why when you’re struggling to stick to new habits, you should reduce them down so you can stick to them, even if it is only in small ways. Every positive step creates a small win that inspires the next small step.  

Habits are resistant to change. They provide us with structure and consistency, reducing uncertainty and freeing up cognitive resources for other activities. 

One of the best books on the subject of habit change is the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  Duhigg is an exceptional storyteller and also provides a framework for habit creation and habit change, based on the habit loop and the work of BJ Fogg. 

Fogg’s habit loop teaches us that every habit has a trigger or cue, a routine and a reward. 

For instance, I love chocolate. Trying to overcome the health risks associated with overeating chocolate, I might announce: “Starting tomorrow I won’t eat chocolate”. Cold turkey almost never works. You can bet I’m again eating chocolate by 3pm the next day. 

Every habit we have, good or bad, has a trigger or a cue.  This trigger or cue creates a craving, which leads to an action. The action we take gives us some kind of reward.

Using the chocolate analogy, my trigger is eating savoury food. This leads to a craving for sweet food. When I act on this craving and eat chocolate, I reward myself with the sensation sweet food provides shown to be the release of dopamine in the brain.

Using the habit loop, I experimented with eating fruit instead of chocolate, responding to the trigger and the craving for sweet food without as many calories. 

However, sometimes my craving for chocolate is more about nurturing. I can be triggered by something that’s upset me and makes me feel vulnerable. I crave nurturing. 

For most of us, chocolate represents a treat our parents gave us when we were younger. Eating chocolate makes us feel nurtured.

When we’re experimenting with our triggers, cravings and rewards, we might replace our nurture craving (chocolate eating habits) with a call to our parents, children, partners or other loved ones.

Specific habit change is different for everyone. It’s all about experimenting with triggers, rewards, and habits.  

Understanding the habit loop will help you initiate new habits and change existing bad habits.

Graphic based on Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” in the of Habit, based upon the work of BJ Fogg. 

Follow these steps:

Step 1: Identify your habits and triggers to help you develop new and better habits

Current habits can become the triggers for the better habits. Identify the good habits you already have.

Examples may be:

  • You shower each day
  • You clean your teeth
  • You eat breakfast
  • You exercise
  • You call your Mum
  • You check your inbox
  • You write your to do list
  • You make your bed

You can also use things that happen to you every day without fail as triggers for new habits:  

  • Someone wakes you up
  • You drive or get public transport to work
  • You receive a regular call from your mother
  • You arrive at work
  • You go to meetings
  • Your colleagues arrive for work

These things serve as great potential triggers and rewards for the creation of good habits.

For instance:

If you’d like to start exercising daily you may use the trigger of being woken up in the morning to exercise, you may then reward yourself with a nice breakfast, or a warm shower.  

  • What are your current good habits? (Cleaning your teeth, making your bed…) 
  • What are the things which happen to you every day?  (My partner wakes up before me, my kids come home from school…) 

Step 2: Identify Your Unproductive Habits 

When you decide to become more productive, you’ll start to notice the habits you have which waste time. These can include: multitasking, checking email too often, allowing yourself to be interrupted or running unproductive meetings.  

The key is to identify your triggers, cravings and rewards.  

Once you’ve identified the unproductive or bad habits you’d like to change, identify your triggers, cravings, rewards and the new habits you’d like to develop.

Duhigg recommends asking the following questions to identify triggers:

Are you triggered by:

  • Time of day?
  • Your environment? 
  • Specific people?
  • Other habits?
  • Emotions?

Then identify how you’re being rewarded for this bad habit by asking yourself:

  • How am I rewarded for this bad habit?  
  • What am I craving?

Finally, identify and test new habits and routines.  

The key is experimenting with your triggers and rewards to see if you fulfil the craving with your new productive habit. Try a new habit each week and reflect on whether the change is working at the end of that week.  

The habit loop is key to making the changes you need to improve your personal productivity. 

Step 3: Embed new habits

Motivation changes, habits are consistent.  

As we embed a new habit into our lives, we need a reminder to perform each habit consistently, until it becomes unconscious.

Schedule time once per week to review whether your habit change initiatives are working. 

Building in time for reflection is a new habit in itself.

As you’re embedding your new habits remember to:

Start small

If you try to take your performance from ‘zero to hero’ you’re more likely to fail than if you start slowly and work your way up to a regular habit. 

If you want to exercise six days per week, and you’re currently not exercising at all, don’t start by exercising six days this week. 

You’ll likely injure yourself or burn yourself out and never go back to the gym again. Just go to the gym once this week, then twice next week and so on.

Make habit change sustainable. 

Step 4: Find someone to hold you accountable

When I meet with clients they tell me what they’ve done since we last met. We set goals together before we meet again. Sometimes this means people complete the goals we’ve set the day before we meet and that doesn’t matter. If no one holds them accountable they may not have done them at all.

Not everyone can afford a coach. We all have people around us who would be happy to hold us accountable. Ask your manager, your teammates, your friends or your partner to hold you accountable. Perhaps proclaim your new habit to your Facebook friends and let them know how you’re going each week. 

Every time you talk about your goals with others you’re strengthening your chance of success. 

Another perfect reminder is your calendar and phone. Reinforce your habit creation by putting new habits in your schedule, developing the habit of sticking to your schedule as much as possible. 

Step 5: Always reward yourself

Research has proven that reward is an important part of the habit process.  

Rewards satisfy cravings. When initiating a new habit, you’ll find you the reward will motivate you. Once the new habit is embedded, the habit itself becomes the reward.

Step 6: Design your environment for success

It’s important to understand how our environment triggers good and bad habits. Habits are created through our interaction with our own environment.  

A little while ago I was coaching a junior accounts person who found she was often distracted by news sites. We simply changed the home screen on her internet browser to her company’s intranet. She was no longer distracted by her browser history, news sites and social media sites every time she needed to conduct a work-related internet search.  

If you wish to meditate every morning, have a cushion beside your bed. If you wish to exercise, have your shoes sitting in full view. Clean your desk regularly and use your environment as a cue for good habits while lessening its ability to distract you.

Step 7: Script your setbacks

When you get clear on your triggers you’re identifying possible ways you can, and will, “fall off the wagon”.

We’ll further explore the ways we sabotage ourselves later. In the meantime, think about what you will do to ‘get back on the wagon’ if you do fall off.  

If you’ve tried to create these habit patterns for yourself previously, why didn’t they stick?  What was the point of failure? And/or how do you think you might fall out of good habits in the future?

Think about significant events you may have coming up, such as a holiday or a conference. What is likely to derail you?

I used to struggle to maintain good habits while travelling for work, so now I adopt strategies like:

  • Taking healthy food with me
  • Making sure I have access to a gym
  • Scheduling in time to respond to emails and action requests from client
  • Making sure I get enough sleep.

As an introvert, travel stimulates me to a point where I have trouble sleeping when I return home. To overcome this, I schedule a late start the next day or work from home if I can 

Scripting your setbacks acknowledges that you aren’t perfect. Things happen to take you off track, but plan for these so they only take you one step back instead of two.

Calls to action:

For each habit you wish to change, ask yourself these questions:

  • How will you start small? (Exercise once this week, twice next week…)
  • Who will hold you accountable? (Your boss, teammates, social media, partner…)
  • How will you reward yourself for each habit change?
  • What changes will you make to your environment?
  • How might you be “derailed”? (Travel, special events, bad news…)
  • What can you do to avoid these “derailers”?
  • If you’re derailed, how will you get back on track?

Habits to work on:

  • Change the way you traditionally change your habits. Instead of just deciding you’ll change a habit, spend time identifying triggers, actions and rewards for that habit. Rather than wishing for habit change, you will be actioning your habits.  

You’ve got this!  

Let us know how you go,

Cholena xoxo

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