This year is almost over. As you think about next year, do you have things you want to do differently? Have you started contemplating your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Do you notice some of the same items on your list that you had last year? Perhaps you are a victim of “the power of habit.”
New York Times business reporter, Charles Duhigg, published an excellent book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business in 2012. He summarized research by neuroscientists on habits and provided illuminating case studies of how people and companies transformed their futures. Using the research and principles Duhigg described, I’ll provide some guidance on how you can look at the patterns in your life to design structures for a better 2014.
Duhigg described research showing that habits get formed when there is (i) a cue (or stimulus), (ii) a routine behavior, and (iii) a reward, which all get linked together in a pattern. After enough repetition, the cue stimulates a “craving” for the reward that is obtained by the routine behavior. Call it a “habit loop.” Here’s the Bad News: once created, the habit loop never goes away. No wonder we struggle to change!
The Good News, however, is that you can overlay a new routine over the old one. The new activity must lead to the same reward, feeding your craving for that reward in a healthier way. Now, when the cue stimulates the habit loop, you can still get the reward, without the old detrimental side effects.
Identify Your Patterns
The trick to transforming a bad habit is to identify the initial stimulus for the behavior, as well as the reward that reinforces it. Often we are oblivious to both. Once we unearth those elements, however, we can transform our results by substituting a different component. Whenever a cue stimulates a “craving” for the reward, we engage in an alternate activity that still leads to the reward. Initially you might not be aware of the craving or the reward. To uncover them, you will have to make some observations about the events and circumstances that surround the behavior you want to avoid.
It’s easier to explain with an example. In my own life, I started snacking more during the day, and my pants got tighter. Historically, I had not been a snacker, but I started finding myself standing in front of the refrigerator at odd times, sometimes without consciously deciding to go there. When I caught myself, I reflected on what had been going on shortly before. I noticed that often I had been trying to draft an article, a blog post or a PowerPoint for a talk.
My analysis revealed the following cue-behavior-reward pattern:
I’m stuck. I’m having trouble with the language. I can’t decide what to write on, or how to structure the article. I can’t find an image for a PowerPoint or an appropriate example to illustrate my point. I noticed that when it gets hard, I start thinking that I’m hungry or I have a craving for a soft drink, even if I just ate within the last hour.
The routine behavior:
Go to the refrigerator and look for something to eat or drink.
Escape the uncomfortable feeling that I have when I’m stuck or struggling.
Substitute a New Behavior
Before my analysis, I had tried to just glue myself to my chair. That resulted in frustration with my work, or going unconscious again. Using willpower to eliminate the behavior just didn’t work. After reading Duhigg’s book, I realized I needed to substitute a healthier behavior to engage in when I got stuck and had the faux-hungry feeling. The new behavior had to give me the reward of escaping from feeling stuck.
Here are some options I came up with:
- Give myself a short break to go outside, stand in the sunshine and look at the flowers
- Do some stretching exercises
- Meditate for 5-10 minutes
- Straighten my desk for 5 minutes
All of those endeavors could give me the reward of a few moments of escape and distraction from the uncomfortable stuck feeling. I find that stretching exercises work best for me, although I try other undertakings at times. I can stretch regardless of the weather, the time of day, the noise around me, or the condition of my office. Stretching adds the benefit of reducing tension and getting my body moving. Sometimes that shakes out new ideas to solve the writing problem, too.
Questions to Ask Yourself
To identify your own habit loop, and find a substitute behavior with a more positive impact, ask yourself the questions set forth below. I provide some examples of behaviors and rewards I recognize in lawyers I work with, just to “prime the pump,” and get you thinking about what might be going on.
1. What is the cue? What happens right before you engage in the behavior you want to stop or avoid? What are you feeling at that time? What kind of sensations are in your body? What are other times when you have those same feelings or sensations?
2. What is the behavior you want to change? Examples:
- Saying yes when you’d really rather say no
- Managing an issue for someone else when they are capable of handling it themselves
- Starting an impromptu project, when you already have deadlines to meet
- Being perfectionistic when “good enough” will do
- Putting off returning a client’s call
- Surfing the internet or social media when you need to be more productive
- Chatting on the phone or texting instead of working
3. What is the reward that the unproductive behavior gets you? Examples:
- Appreciation from others
- Feeling important or needed
- Turning chaos into order
- A sense of control when something else is out of control
- A feeling of accomplishment or closure
- Being able to see tangible evidence of progress
- Attention or sympathy from others
- Distraction from thinking about something stressful
- Avoiding an uncomfortable situation
- Relief from boredom
4. What is a different behavior that you can substitute when the stimulus appears, that will give you the same reward that you are “craving”? Brainstorm some possibilities, then experiment.
If you take the time to do this analysis, you can experiment with different and more productive actions that still feed your craving. Put on a scientist’s hat. Record and analyze your results. Make 2014 the year that you stop relying on willpower and avoid disappointing yourself. Instead of becoming the victim of habit, harness the power of it to transform your results.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.