According to Charles Duhigg, the well-respected author of the Power of Habit and New York Times columnist, you may want to sculpt rather than scrap your well-polished sequences of behavior.
Habits formed through addictions can be put to either good or bad use, depending on the situation. At their worst, they cause destructive, addictions and dependence. At their best, habits allow you to boost your efficiency and effectiveness.
The key to unlocking the power of habit for you is to understand that habits are formed and maintained through a cyclical process called a “habit loop.” Your habit loop begins to form when a behavior you perform leads to an outcome that you desire (most likely a trigger of serotonin). If you want to get that reward again, you’ll repeat the behavior. Then, for the loop to be complete, you also need a cue to trigger your craving for the desired outcome.
Using the psychology of the habit loop, change becomes possible when you use the cue to trigger a new behavior that itself leads to a reward, perhaps different than the original reward, but a reward nevertheless. This happens with problem gamblers who see the near win as a reason to keep gambling. Non-problem gamblers reward themselves for the near win (which they correctly interpret as a loss) by leaving the casino without losing more of their money. Understand the cues that trigger the behavior, substitute a new routine, and make sure that the new routine reaps its own reward. You’ll soon be craving the reward produced by the new routine, according to this logic.
Duhigg provides a 4-step plan for breaking a bad habit loop and substituting it with one designed to produce new habits that will benefit your mental and physical health. Unfortunately, habits are harder to break than to build, but this 4-step program can get you going in the right direction.
1) Identify the cue, routine, and reward. Draw your own habit loop for the behavior you’re trying to change. As is true for mindful eating, just thinking about what you’re doing can often stimulate habit change right then and there. Your habit changes to eating less, or more healthily, when you realize what’s triggering your bad snacking habits.
2) Seek alternative rewards. Winning money is a clear reward for gambling, but for problem gamblers, near wins begin to take on highly rewarding value. To stop the gambling you need to find an outcome that will be even more rewarding for you than the cash. Because everyone’s reward structure is slightly different, you need to determine which reward will lead to the new craving that triggers the new, non-gambling, behavior.
3) Figure out the actual cue. You may think that your constant online shoe shopping is due to a desire to look stylish, but perhaps there’s something else that triggers this habit of overspending. Try to isolate the actual cue (feeling) when the habit kicks in. Duhigg suggests that you go 5 for 5 on this and look at the possible 5 categories of cues: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. Your desire to fill your closet may have nothing to do with your wanting to dress to impress but instead because you feel lonely, anxious, or spend time with friends who themselves are overly preoccupied with appearance.
4) Make a game plan to change. You may think that you can’t control your habits, but if you anticipate your characteristic response to a situation, you can change that response. Let’s say that you’re most likely to drink too much when you’re watching your favorite sports on TV, perhaps just because you needed something to do instead of just sitting there. Make a plan so that when the game is on you’ve got another activity you can engage in that would also give you something to do, particularly during the lulls in the action when your habitual response was to take another swig of beer. It could be playing a video game, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a magazine. By building a reward into the new behavior (doing something enjoyable while bored) you are increasing the chances that, over time, you can instill a new and healthier habit.
There’s no reason to let your addictive habits dominate and ruin your life. Instead, you can use them to build large gains on small wins, redirect behavioral sequences that cause you to become addicted and improve your mental productivity. Old habits die hard, but like everything, they eventually do die.