“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
The world has changed much since those days, but the functions of human systems are still the same. And when it comes to habits, they rule supreme, whether it’s good ones like reading and writing or bad ones like drinking and smoking.
But it all comes down the Operating System (OS) in your brain which can be trained, untrained, and re-trained.
How habits form
A habit is a nun’s clothes. Joke aside, a habit is set of automated tasks your brain does. But just as with everything in this world, a habit isn’t just a habit.
When you break it down to its smallest pieces, you actually get three distinct parts which make a habit.
There’re 2 types of habits: conscious habits and hidden habits. And plenty of your bad habits are hidden, you can try to identify your hidden habits here first.
Research done by Charles Duhigg and presented in his book The Power Of Habits shows us that a habit consists of three parts:
Cue is basically a trigger which sends the impulse to the brain that it is time to do the routine. Cues can be internal or external. An internal cue depends on your emotional state and your thoughts.
The easiest example is when you feel nervous and you start biting your nails.
The feeling of nervousness is an internal cue and your brain acknowledges that cue and goes into a routine which is to bite the nails.
One more example is showering. As soon as you step into the shower/bathtub, your mind simply goes blank and you start shampooing your body. You probably have no idea, but every single time you shampoo your body the same way.
First comes the torso, then the hands, then legs. It doesn’t even matter what the order is, but what matters is that the cue for the routine of showering is you entering the bathtub/shower.
Cues are triggers which start the automated process of a routine in our head.
This is the action that we do when we are triggered or cued up. In the example above, the routine is showering and biting your nails. Our mind does this automatically.
The routine is impregnated in our minds in the area called the basal ganglia and once the routine is set, it is impossible to forget it. That’s why you know how to ride a bike even if you haven’t sat on it for 30 years.
This is the emotional/physical/physiological response to the routine which gives us a certain high.
Every habit has a reward not only as a motivator but as a way to signal to our brain that the habit is done and that it needs to get off “autopilot.”
Now, the process of breaking down a habit is a little bit different than what it is when establishing a new habit. But still, it has only three simple steps which are above-mentioned.
We just have a different approach towards them when breaking a habit. So, let’s start with it.
Breaking down a habit with these 3 easy steps
The three easy ways to break down a habit include making certain things hard to do.
1. Make the cue invisible
We know that a cue is a trigger for the habit. Unless there is a cue, a habit won’t start. So one of the steps of breaking a habit is to make the cue invisible.
Most of the times, the habits that we make are simple to do and are triggered by simple cues.
Imagine taking a walk down the street. You do it burn off some calories and because it’s healthy for the body (and mind). But there is an ice cream stand at the bottom of the street and every single time you walk past it, you can’t help yourself but to stand and pick a chocolate chip flavored ice cream.
You did it so many times that it became a habit. The cue is spotting the ice cream stand. That triggers an emotional reaction, a craving from our side for some delicious ice cream which we then buy (routine). As soon as we take the first lick of the ice cream, we immediately feel the impeccable taste of that chocolate melting in our mouths (reward).
To make the cue invisible, you need to put yourself in a situation where you won’t trigger the cue in your head. Since you know the location of the stand, you need to win this game not at the stand, declining to act on a routine. But what you need to do is choose a different street to walk on and completely ignore this one.
That is the place where you win the battle. You win it by not entering in the battle at all.
By making the cue invisible, you can completely skip the bad habit and after enough repetitions, break it. But what if it’s impossible to make the cue invisible – like a TV set in the living room and your nasty habit of binge-watching whatever is on the TV.
That’s where we make the routine difficult.
2. Make the routine difficult
In the case above, where we want to break down the habit of watching TV endlessly as soon as we get back home, we can’t make the cue invisible. So we create the routine difficult.
If the habit is comprised of sitting on the sofa after work (cue), grabbing the remote and turning on the TV (routine), and watching entertainment (reward), we will make the routine difficult.
We will use something called the 20-second rule. The 20-second rule states that if you make an action so “difficult” that it takes us to jumpstart it, we won’t do it at all.
In the case above, you can make the routine difficult by implementing the 20-second rule by:
- Unplug the TV from the power source. So every time that you come home and sit on the sofa, you will need to get up, plug the TV in the chord and sit back down on the sofa to watch TV.
- Put the remote in the other room. Again, the same spiel applies as in the case above.
- Remove the batters from the remote and keep them stored in the basement. Again, the same example from above counts.
Even though these examples sound a bit ridiculous and you think that there is no way that this will ever work, I have a plethora of research which proves otherwise.
By the way, this also when you are creating a new, good habit. You simply reverse the 20-second rule, making the object as close/easy as possible for you to do.
Never doubt the laziness of your brain to perform a certain action.
Last but not least, we can make the end of the habit, the reward, unsatisfying.
3. Make the reward unsatisfying
Rewards have two functions. The first is to satisfy a craving. The second one is to teach us.
We will stay with the first one because that one is crucial when breaking bad habits.
Satisfy a craving
When you take habits into account, this is common sense. The reward that comes after we performed a certain routine is natural and expected.
But when breaking a habit, we need to reverse this process and make the satisfying effect unsatisfying and here is how we do that.
When we satisfy a craving, we are not, in fact, satisfying an end, we are satisfying a means to an end. This is the mindset shift we need to make to think about “rewards” in their right way.
When you are craving for that cookie even though you know that you want to lose weight, you are, in fact, not craving to eat a cookie or its flavor. You are craving for the emotions, the feelings you get from eating that cookie.
That is the part which is addictive and which closes the habit loop (the reward).
What you crave from a reward is an emotion which makes you feel good, one way or another, and the way that you make the reward unsatisfying is by finding a reward which gives you the same or bigger intensity of that emotion. Here is an example:
You like gambling and putting a big load of money on the table. The reward that you get is the feeling known as “the thrill of the action.” So what you crave isn’t putting a $100,000 on the Blackjack table, it’s the feeling of “the thrill of the action.”
What else could give you the same emotional push? Is it skydiving, scuba diving, driving a racing car or playing Counter-strike in virtual reality?
Once you try different things and figure out that you can get a bigger intensity from a different, less dangerous activity for you, you will switch the activity that you were doing because the first one will no longer give you the thrill.
Let’s take a look at another example:
You want a cookie and you want it bad. But as in the example above, you learned that the same feeling of comfort can be gained by chewing on almonds which even though they don’t taste the same, give you the same feeling of comfort.
The examples for this are endless and you just need to try a couple of different things which give you the same or greater intensity of the emotion.
There is also a second function of a reward and that is to teach us but it is not important when breaking bad habits.
Our brains are like computer programs. We can change them if we code them the way we want to. \
Bad habits are just a piece of bad coding which snuck in our brains when we weren’t watching. But there is a way to break them.
The first thing is to understand how habits form and that they are comprised of cues, routines, and rewards.
If we want to change the habits, we need to make the cues invisible, the routines hard, and the rewards unsatisfying.
All of this seems harder than it is, but in reality, it’s simple and easy to do. We just need to remember Jim Rohn’s saying when it comes to simple and easy actions:
Consistency is the key to breaking any bad habit – don’t beat yourself up if you fail once. Just keep on pushing with simple and easy ways to break them and you will soon enough lose the bad habits and retrain your brain.