Almost all of us have bad habits that we have tried to break but can't. That's because we have relied on willpower. Willpower can be effective, but it's like a muscle that grows fatigued after a while, and we tend to slip back into old patterns.
Charles Duhigg, an investigative journalist for The New York Times, spent the past few years uncovering new scientific research on the neurology and psychology of habits. The findings indicate a much more effective way to break bad habits…
The Habit Loop
Habits are neurological shortcuts that we use to save mental effort and get through life more efficiently. But the dependence on automatic routines—MIT researchers say more than 40% of our daily actions are habits-has a downside. Our brains go on autopilot, and we reach for a cigarette, bite our nails or turn on the TV without thinking.
Habits like these may seem complicated, but they all can be broken down into three components…
- Cue, which triggers an urge or a craving that we need to satisfy and causes a habitual behavior to unfold (for example, you feel sluggish and want to perk up).
Did You Know? Workers in Small Companies Are Happier
People who work in firms with fewer than 100 employees are 25% more likely to be happy than people working at firms with more than 1,000 employees.
Other factors that contribute to happiness at work: Supervising others rather than being supervised...working at a job that involves caregiving or direct service rather than one in sales...working in a skilled trade.
- Routine or actual behavior you want to change you reach for a can of cola).
- Reward, the deep-seated desire satisfied by your behavior (the soda's sugar, caffeine and fizziness energize you).
Over time, these three components become so intertwined and encoded in the structures of our brains that they form an intense loop of craving and anticipation of the associated reward.
Step 1: Analyze The Loop
Awareness of the mechanisms of your own particular habit can make it easier to change…
Identify the routine. It's the most obvious and visible part of the loop.
Example: Every day, I would get up from my desk at The New York Times building, wander to the cafeteria and eat a cookie while I chatted with whomever was there. I am a disciplined person, so it was frustrating and embarrassing that this daily habit had caused me to gain several pounds over the course of a year despite my efforts to resist. I would even put notes on my computer that read "No More Cookies." But most days, I gave in.
- Isolate the cue. Scientists have determined that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories. Ask yourself the following questions when you feel an urge that sets off a behavior pattern—What time is it? Where am 12...Who else is around?...What was I just doing?.. What emotion am I feeling? One or more of the answers is your cue. It took me several days of self-observation to discover the trigger for my cookie binge. It would happen every day between 3 pm and 4 pm. I wasn't hungry or stressed out at the time, but I did feel isolated after working alone in my office for many hours.
- Figure out the actual reward. Because I wasn't eating cookies to stem my hunger, some other powerful craving was being satisfied. You can pinpoint the craving with some experimentation using alternate rewards.
Example: One day when I felt the urge to go to the cafeteria and get a cookie, I walked briskly around the block without eating anything. The next day, I brought a cookie from home and ate it at my desk. The day after, I had an apple and a cup of coffee with people at the cafeteria. After each experiment, I waited 15 minutes. If I still felt the urge to go to the cafeteria for a cookie, I assumed that the habit wasn't motivated by that particular reward. I soon realized what I was craving was the distraction and relief that came from socializing. Only after gossiping with colleagues in the cafeteria was I able to get back to work without further urges.
Step 2: Adjust The Routine
Trying to ignore my craving and suppress my behavior took what seemed like bottomless reserves of willpower. Studies suggested that I would have much more success if I tinkered with the routine, simply modifying it to be less destructive. That's the secret to gaining leverage-cues and rewards are primal needs that are difficult to deny, but routines are quite malleable and often can be replaced. Every afternoon when I felt the urge to have a cookie, I would visit the office of a friend and chat with him for at least 10 minutes.
Step 3: Give It Time
My new behavior pattern, which I tracked on paper each day, still required effort and will power. I often felt like slipping back into the old routine, and in fact, I did have setbacks, especially when I was under a lot of stress or out of my usual environment. But resisting the cookie was more manageable than applying blind discipline and writing notes to myself. Habits are an accretive process each time you perform a modified loop, there is a thickening of neural pathways in the brain and the new behavior gets marginally easier. After about a month, I suddenly realized that I had a powerful craving to chat with a friend in the afternoon--but I no longer felt the urge to eat cookies.
Other helpful findings…
- Begin with minor, easy-to-change habits. A series of small wins makes you believe that you can cope with deeply entrenched crayings in a different way.
- Get involved with others trying to break the same habit. Becoming part of a like-minded social group provides more than just inspiration and a measure of accountability. Their experience is helpful in analyzing your cues and rewards and in suggesting alternative routines and behaviors.
Creating Good Habits
Trying to start a positive, new habit, such as exercising more or eating better, presents a different kind of challenge. Instead of analyzing and altering an existing loop, you have to establish one from scratch. What works...
- Focus on "keystone" habits. There are certain good habits that seem to echo through one's life and make it easier to change other habits. For instance, people who exercise regularly start eating better, stop using their credit cards quite so much, procrastinate less and have more patience with colleagues and family. Other keystone habits include a healthful, consistent sleep routine...maintaining good track of your finances...and keeping your living space organized.
Therapy to Fall Asleep
Fifty-one adults who had difficulty falling asleep (sleep-onset insomnia) were divided into two groups. Both groups were taught good sleep practices (maintaining a standard wake-up time, using the bed only for sleeping, etc.). One group, however, also received cognitive refocusing therapy (CRT)-which involves thinking about something interesting but unexciting, such as song lyrics or recipes, when preparing for sleep or upon wakening during the night. After one month, the CRT group fell asleep much faster than the group that didn't do CRT. If you try CRT but insomnia persists, see a sleep medicine specialist.
To Keep Anxiety in Check…
- Avoid sugar and white flour–they have been linked to an increase in brain chemicals that cause anxiety.
- Get some sun daily–anxiety sufferers of ten feel more relaxed after spending 20 to 40 minutes outdoors when the sun is shining.
- Seek solitude–find a quiet spot to read, write, listen to music or just think for 30 to 60 minutes each day.
- Work out–exercising for 30 to 40 minutes three to five times per week can help reduce stress.
- Get enough sleep–at least eight hours per night. Take a shower 15 minutes before you go to bed to help you relax, and set the thermostat no higher than 68° to sleep more soundly.
- Use a concrete and consistent cue. Studies show that if you are hungry when you get home at the end of the day and there is nothing readily available to eat for dinner, you are much more likely to eat poorly. Just a simple cue like leaving vegetables out on the counter-even if you don't eat them-results in healthier eating,
- Make sure that the reward you choose is something you really crave. For instance, you want to get in better shape. When you first start jogging or going to the gym, the rewards (such as losing weight or gaining more energy) may not happen quickly enough to keep you motivated or to turn the behavior into an automatic habit. You may need to trick your brain the first few weeks by rewarding yourself with something more lavish and immediate after you exercise, such as a piece of chocolate or a soak in a hot tub.
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An individual's stress level grows the more times he/she checks his phone for messages, alerts and updates.