“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” – this quote is floating around the internet attributed to a number of people, with Warren Buffet and a mysterious anonymous among them. Regardless of who the author is, it intrigues me with its simple yet precise way of stating the truth.
All of us have habits. Many of them are productive habits that help us get through the day without having to use our brain power for planning out every single step of the way. It’s the bad habits that “chain” us up and preclude from enjoying a higher quality of life, healthier bodies, and mind. Usually, these habits form without our awareness of how our behaviors become automatic. Bad habits are hard to break because our most frequently repeated behaviors become the routine embedded into our neural pathways.
The good news is that we can break any bad habit and it’s never too late to do so. Just telling yourself you will muster the willpower and break a habit at once may work for some people but the rest of us need dedication and effort. The very first step is to understand what our habits are made of. Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit breaks down the framework for forming habits. It’s a loop made of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
- First, comes the cue – it triggers our brain to start the cycle, without us being consciously aware of it.
- Then the automatic behavior itself.
- And lastly, the reward – the “favorite” part of the process for our brain, which makes it remember the experience and repeat it over and over again.
Take a bad habit you would like to get rid of and analyze its structure. What is the routine behavior that has been formed? In my case let’s say it’s picking or biting your cuticles (not nails, for the record!). What triggers it? Is it when I am engrossed in an intense thought process? Is it when I am stressed or worried? I have to analyze the process thoroughly to isolate the cue. If you are finding it hard to pin point the cues, Duhigg suggests looking into the following five categories: a certain location, time or emotional state you may find yourself in, as well as other people or any immediately preceding actions that may inadvertently serve as triggers of certain behaviors.
What are the rewards? Rewards are usually there to satisfy cravings, but I may not even be aware of what cravings this silly little habit satisfies. Dry cuticles stop bothering me? Not sure. I need to focus on how I can change the reward process. For the sake of this example: what other methods I can use for dealing with cuticles. Maybe some of the possible solutions could be constantly moisturizing cuticles to keep them moist at all times, using shellac nails, applying bitter substances on fingertips, chewing gum or keeping fingers busy with other tasks. You can keep brainstorming for whatever rewards apply for your unique situation.
Once you have figured out your loop, the author suggests we form a plan and keep implementing it despite any occasional throwbacks (that will be there). Since there is no single prescription that will work in all cases, we have to experiment with different rewards, as well as break the pattern itself by changing our habitual setting. Any time we are spending outside of our normal environment, even temporarily, is a good time to break a bad habit. That’s why vacations are a great opportunity to change your bad habits. When you are on vacation – it’s easier to break the loop because the usual cues the expected rewards may not be available. So, if I seriously want to quit picking my cuticles, I need to take advantage of my vacation time to work on breaking this pesky habit.
Are you tied down by any bad habit? It could be smoking, procrastinating, eating unhealthy or any other habit that does not help you in any way. Are you willing to accept the challenge to break its chains?