Knock Out Bad Habits, Cultivate Good Ones

While bad habits are astonishingly strong, they do have weak points.

Posted Feb 29, 2012

My guess is that at least one of your bad habits (eating too much, sleeping too little, surfing the web instead of working, snapping at your family members) is in the front of your mind right this instant. 

Our apparent lack of control over unhealthy or unproductive habits and inability to consistently cultivate good ones in their place is a primariy preoccupation that relates to all aspects of our lives.

Charles Duhigg, a business reporter with The New York Times, has an excellent new book out: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business. I interviewed Duhigg for a forthcoming piece in the March/April issue of PT on work habits. (We discussed how to control habits such as complaining too much to coworkers, procrastinating on difficult tasks, and, on a grander scale, shaking up office-wide routines that are counterproductive.) 

Duhigg's approach is very appealing, because he distills habits down to a simple loop: routine, cue, and reward. He wields his powerhouse reporting skills to illustrate his take on the psychological research (you might have read his exploration of how Target and other merchants analyze your habits)  and concludes that while habits are astonishingly strong, they have weak points that, when attacked, cause them to crumble.

Rather than trying to stop a bad habit, analyze what cues you to engage in that particular routine, and what reward you get after doing so. Change the cue and the reward, and the routine is much more easily replaced with a more desirable one. Psychologists often debate about willpower and how to get it. Duhigg's framework takes willpower out of the question and focuses on the structure of your habits. Tweak the structure and soon your brain will develop new behavioral grooves to follow automatically, whether or not you happen to feel a burst of willpower.

I think my pet interest of friendship applies to habits very nicely. If you hate exercising, come up with a weekly plan to meet a friend for a walk or class. The cue in this example is an official appointment time, when another person will be waiting for you. The payoff is laughing and gossiping with your friend, and the routine--regular exercise--will start providing its own rewards before long.

Friendfluence is out on Jan. 15th!

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