Our most dependable processes
We are all creatures of habit.
We have to be. So much information to process. So limited a working memory. And a survival instinct to avoid new thinking to conserve resources. Our brain hardwires everything it can, coding all repetitive or otherwise important routines into its capacious subcortex. And a habit is formed.
We often talk about habits in the context of “bad” habits. Over-eating, nail-biting, over-working. But suspend judgement for a moment on good vs. bad, and we can see habits for what they really are: just about the most dependable and performant processes we have.
Mostly we don’t choose or design our habits deliberately
Mostly, our habits develop in a haphazard and random fashion. But how useful would it be to you and your career to be able to design your habits deliberately, in support of your professional goals?
The habit loop
To reshape a habit, we need first to understand its component parts.
A habit is more than just the observable behaviour we most-often equate it with. Rather, the habit loop consists of 3 stages.
- The Cue. Habitual behaviour is precursed by a cue. Some trigger event that kick-starts the habit, telling your brain which habit to use and dropping us into autopilot.
- The Routine. The thing we do. Perhaps the most obvious element of the habit, certainly when it’s a physical behaviour. But the routine need not be physical; it can also be mental, emotional, or some combination.
- The Reward. What we get for performing the behaviour – and rarely just the face-value outcome. The reward helps our brain figure out if this loop is worth retaining – although our conscious self might not always agree with the answer!
If the habit loop is the first thing to know about the internal wiring of habits, the second thing to know about are cravings.
Cravings: the driving force
The habit loop is what we do, but it is not what keeps us doing it.
The driving force behind a habit is a craving: the unsated anticipation of the reward. Joy in its early stages; turning to desire, anger, frustration and desperation if left unsatisfied. Habits only fully take hold when our brains learn to crave the associated reward.
Cravings set the habit loop spinning and are what make habits so incredibly powerful – as seen to negative effect in potentially destructively habits like gambling which can persist in the face of overwhelming disincentives.
Cravings are an essential element to what makes a habit work – and keep on working – on autopilot.
Installing new habits
Habits are useful because the brain doesn’t have to pay them much attention. But for exactly that reason, it makes habits hard to notice and harder-still to change.
One of the big benefits of understanding habits in terms of the habit loop is it brings that much more into our conscious awareness. And from there, we can start to make changes. Not to eradicate a habit (our brain’s hardwiring is just too deeply embedded to do that); but to modify it.
Step 1: Awareness of the routine
The first step to modifying a habit is to identify its component parts, starting with the routine. Take a mental step-back and as a third-party observer, notice what you’re doing. No need to tag labels to the behaviours: just observe what you’re doing – in as much detail as possible. (Detail will help when you later look to supplant old vices with new and more productive routines.)
Write-out your habit routine on a piece of paper – in as much detail as possible.
Step 2: Isolate the cue
What, specifically, is triggering the habit loop? This is difficult because our cues exist amidst a cacophony of noise and interference. To help your observations, try identifying trigger categories ahead of time. Almost all habitual cues are one of either: preceding action; other people, own emotional state; location; time of day.
For each occurrence of your habit, write-down the circumstances according to each of the trigger categories: the time, the place, your feelings, other people, the actions.
Step 3: Identify the actual craving
Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But which craving is driving the habit? You know you’re overworking; but is it for a sense of achievement, for additional praise and recognition, or because you don’t want to go home? To figure out which craving is really being satisfied by the routine, experiment by slightly adjusting your routine to deliver a different reward. So try something different that still gets you your sense of achievement / additional praise and recognition / staying out of an evening. Do you still feel the urge to work late?
At the occurrence of your habit (according to your observations of routine and cue), undertake a revised routine that still delivers you a reward. If the craving persists, next time try a different routine delivering a different reward.
Step 4: Insert new routine
You’ve diagnosed the components of your habit loop. You’ve identified and isolated the routine, the cue and the reward. Now you can start to shift the behaviour by inserting new components into the formula.
To do this, use an “implementation intention”: a pre-planned behaviour in response to your identified trigger that satisfies your craving. Your implementation intention is a simple statement that says “if X, then Y, so Z”. For example: “when I have back-to-back meetings, I will schedule them 55 minutes each so I am on time and focused for the next meeting”.
Write out your implementation plan. Take steps to put it in mind whenever your habit kicks in.
A plan for change
It can take 3 weeks, 3 months or longer to ingrain a new habit. The trick is to focus on the new habit long enough for it to become hardwired. To help that process, in addition to implementation intentions, there are 3 more keys to embedding new habits.
- Attention. Our brains are an attention economy. Any time spent focusing on the old habit, even thinking about what not to do, will deepen those circuits. Focus solely on your new habit.
- Repetition. Our brains look for repeated behaviours to hardwire as habits. Repeat your new routines as often as possible to get to the habit-forming stage quicker.
- Acknowledgement. Positive feedback makes us feel good and gets us wanting to do more of what made us feel that way! So give yourself plenty of acknowledgement for implementing your new routines.
The power of habit
Habits are powerful processes that, ordinarily, we don’t pay much attention to. But with a little knowledge and application, we can bring more of our habits into conscious awareness – and get our autopilot working for us and our continued success.
If you’re interested in learning more about habits, you might like to read Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” (London: Random House, 2013).