If you had to guess what was more important in being able to succeed when it came to willpower or re-structuring your habits, what would you choose?  If you choose willpower, you would be wrong.  Many people assume the only way to change your habits is to use brute force, better known as willpower.  The problem though is willpower can be fickle and as such, it is the systems we create for our lives that help to  either make or break our success.

For example, imagine you had the habit of going out every Friday and Saturday night with a couple of friends and bought “only” a couple of rounds, along with some late-night food.  The two rounds (3 drinks per round at $10 per drink) would set you back about $65 and another $20 out on food.  $85 per night, two times per week would run you around $9000 per year.  I routinely see people do something similar, whether it be with going out with friends and alcohol, impulse shopping or simply indulging in a “weekly massage and manicure.”  Is all that excess money being wasted because of poor willpower or poor structure of your habits?  If you decided you still wanted to go out, but changed to 1 time per week while only buying one round, without any food, you would spend about one-fifth of the money.  You would do that while still having all the rewards you would want from going out.

In today’s Psych Post, I’m going to discuss the three phases of habits and how you can master the habits that ultimately control your life.

Two Types of Habits

In changing your life, there are two main types of habits.  Here’s an example of the first one:
You walk past a co-worker’s desk and see she has small Hershey Kisses sitting out there.  Not only are they tempting, but by mid-afternoon you feel as though they know you’re name and they’re asking you to pick them up.  Since you’re trying to eat healthy, you know you shouldn’t take any.  But 4 o’clock comes around, you haven’t ate anything since your salad at lunch and you’re starving.  You decide to have “just one.”  The issue is once you have one, the floodgates open.  You keep going back and getting, “just one.”  12 later, you’ve had a whole serving of Hershey Kisses and feel like a failure on your new “Healthy Eating” plan.

This first main type of habit is one you currently have, but you want to stop doing.

Break Your Eating Habits

...And Winter is Coming!

The second type of habit is the opposite.  For instance, you decide that you want to start going to the gym.  You pack your bag and promise that you’ll stop by on the way home from work.  After work though, you get tired and instead of sticking to your plan, you say, “I’ll start tomorrow, when I’m not so tired.”  The next day comes and you do the same thing.  By Wednesday, you decide, “I’ll just start next week.”  And the cycle plays out over and over for a whole year.  Sure you get to the gym a couple of times, but not anything close to consistent.

This is the second main type of habit – Habits you’re not doing, but you want to consistently do.

Both of these types of habits play influential roles in our lives and can derail our progress, not by some large smattering of inability or lack of desire, or even a strong enough why, but sometimes, it’s simply we don’t recognize the “habit loop.”

In next week’s post, I’ll talk about How to Add New Habits to Your Life.  The rest of this post will be geared towards Breaking Habits You Currently Have.

How the Habit Loop Controls Your Life

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he shows how we all have a certain pattern to any of our habits.  He explains research that shows how habits then go through three main stages.

First, there’s the cue of the habit.  For the Hershey Kisses attack, you have a cue of seeing the chocolate.  Before you saw the chocolate, you weren’t thinking about it, but once you saw it, you had a desire.

>Second is the Routine of the habit.  You go and pick up one piece of Hershey Kiss at a time, telling yourself that you’ll have “only one.”  And then go back and continue doing the same thing, time and time again.

The third part is the reward.  The reward in this case may be the sugar rush from the candy or the distraction of getting up from your desk, but either way, you get a certain reward from performing the habit.

The Habit Loop looks something like this:

Change Your Habits
This habit loop is what we unconsciously continue to do, day after day, year after year, that helps us to not only make our lives easier (when they work for us), but can also truly complicate our lives when they work against us.

So the question is, how do you change this habit loop?

Changing Your Habits, the Habit Loop Way
As there are three parts, there are three main ways to change habits.

The first in understanding what is causing the Habit Loop to begin by identifying the Cue.  For the example with the Hershey Kisses, you can use a form of Habit Reversal Training.  In this area, the first step will be awareness.  Every time you want to get up and go get a piece of chocolate, write down the time and the “cue.”  The “Cue” can be anything from wanting the chocolate itself, to being bored with work, to wanting to talk to a co-worker.  In fact, with the Cue, I like to write down, the physical sensation (I’m hungry), the state of mind I’m in (I’m bored) and what I was actually doing (sitting at my desk, writing an email).  These three things, along with the time give you a quick snippet of identifying what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and whether or not you want the food itself.  This way you can start to understand whether or not it’s the food itself or simply something to distract you from the boredom of the email you’re writing.

Spend at least 1 week simply identifying the cue that makes you act on the habit you want to break.

The Second feature is to identify the Reward you get from the habit.  Maybe you get to walk and “clear your mind” every time you get a piece of chocolate.  By doing so, your reward is not the chocolate, but instead an opportunity to break free from your desk.  Maybe it’s the conversation you have along the way to get the chocolate.  No matter what the reward, you have to be honest with yourself.  The more clearly you can define the reward other than the habit that you’re trying to break, the more likely you are to be able to change the habit.

>Spend at least 1 week identifying the reward you currently get from the habit itself.

The Third feature is to identify the Routine of the Habit itself.  What do you currently do when you get into the routine of the habit?  Do you get up and make a bee-line for the chocolate or do you stop and talk to other co-workers?  Do you also go to the bathroom or make some copies?  In other words, what is the routine of the habit that you currently have?

This part of the habit loop is the part you will need to change, while still allowing yourself to get the same reward that you have been getting from eating the chocolate.  If you have identified that the “reward” for the eating the chocolate was socializing, still allow the cues to effect you, but instead of eating the chocolate, you can simply talk with someone else.

Spend at least 1-2 weeks playing with different ways in which you can modify your routine.  At this point, you’ve spent 3-4 weeks becoming aware of the cue, identifying the reward and changing the routine.  As long as the cue and reward remain the same, but you can go through a different Routine of the habit, you would have successfully changed your habits.

One Year to a Completely New You

Habits can work for us, such as making it easier to shower and brush your teeth in the morning without having to decide every single step along the way to getting ready in the morning, but more often than not, when we think of habits, we think about the ways in which they hold us back.

If you decided to change one habit, just 1 habit per month, you would find you can change virtually any and all the negative habits holding you back.Imagine what you could become if you could change 12 habits currently holding you back.  Imagine what you could achieve.  Imagine how much your confidence in your ability to change would be affected.  Start with just one small habit, use the steps outlined in this post and stick to it.

Are you up for the challenge?  What habit do you plan on changing this year?

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