How to Hack Our Habits (Part 1)
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
When it comes to making a change in our life, whether it be related to physical or mental health, finances, work ethic, etc., we tend to begin with the end in mind. We look at the CEO who is already making millions, the celebrity who became an "overnight success," the entrepreneur whose side hustle is succeeding or the athlete with a chiseled physique and long list of endorsements. The difference between us and those we admire is not that we have different goals, but that we have different ways of getting there. What we don't see, is that behind these success stories, there are likely hundreds of small habits that lead up to the big rewards, habits that we have yet to implement.
In this six-part series, we'll look at the science of habit formation including why habits matter, how to break ineffective habits and implement effective ones, and how to choose habits that work best for us. We'll start with how habits work.
The Habit Loop. There are four steps to creating a new habit which Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, refers to as the habit loop. New habits are initiated by a cue, which triggers a routine, that produces a reward, that drives a craving to repeat the behavior. The more awareness we have about how our habits operate, the more opportunities we have to make meaningful changes. As Clear writes, when you can "recognize your habits and acknowledge the cues that trigger them, [it's] possible to respond in a way that benefits you."
Automation. Habits are already a significant part of our day. We just don't think about them because the benefit of habits is the ability to do them semi-mechanically. This is likely true for the way you wash-up for bed, pull out of a parking spot, or check social media while working. The reason these actions feel so natural is something called Hebb's law: "Neurons that fire together wire together." As we perform these actions repeatedly, the connection strengthens between the cells needed to act and the benefits from doing the action. We associate a clean face with time to lounge in bed or checking side view mirrors with successfully maneuvering the car. And we tend to do this the same way whether we're happy or sad, tired or energized. As Gretchen Ruben notes, "when we're anxious or tired we fall back on our habits, whether good or bad." That is the perk of habits, once they are forged, we do not have to spend much time or energy (or willpower) to repeat them. Which is all the more reason to spend time upfront cultivating positive habits.
Forging a New Identity. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, "The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do." Small acts, repeated (almost) daily, do not just have tangible benefits, they actually change the way you view yourself. "Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete." We often discount these seemingly modest steps, but it's the repeated act of showing up that transforms you into the type of person you want to be. And the stronger this new identity becomes, the more apt you are to stick with behaviors that further this improved you.
The extent to which habit formation is designed to reduce effort should not be overlooked. This moment, when you are just getting started, is the hardest it will ever be. As you learn strategies to implement new routines, rewire your brain to perform these behaviors more easily, and create an identity that promotes this change, it will get easier. Not right away, not all at once, but if you keep going, one day you will breathe when you're anxious, . Up next we will dig into each aspect of the habit loop, starting with cues, to increase our awareness and develop strategies for behavior change.