How to Hack Our Habits (Part 4)
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
The benefit of habits is that they kick in automatically, without much thought or effort. But to hard wire behaviors into our brain we have to repeat them again and again until they stick. To do that, we need to reward ourselves when we act in accordance with the habits we want to create. As James Clear says, "[p]leasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating." This is particularly important since often the real benefit of a new habit is usually a ways off (like feeling stronger or better managing stress). In this article we'll see how rewards help us change undesirable behaviors and automate desired behaviors.
How rewards drive habits. To illustrate the importance of rewards in changing our habits, consider the act of brushing your teeth. We know that brushing is important for maintaining the health of our teeth and gums, but that's likely not your first thought upon waking. Instead, you're more likely just eager for that refreshingly minty taste. That sparkly clean feeling is the reward, the part of the behavior that keeps you coming back for more. In fact, there are no health benefits from that tingling feeling, instead it is caused by oils and chemicals added by manufacturers solely to create a tingling sensation and encourage brushing. Perhaps this is why brushing is so routine and flossing is far less common.
Changing existing habits. Since we already have our brushing routine down, let's look at how to use this science to change some of our less effective habits. When it comes to changing an existing behavior, you need to expose the reward that drives it. To do this, Charles Duhigg recommends experimenting with different behaviors in place of your current habit. For example, if you're trying to eat fewer sweets, each time you want to reach for a cookie go do something else instead--take a walk, call a friend, eat an apple, you get the idea. When you're done, think about (or even better, write down) a few words that come to mind--happy, energized, bored, sunshine, full, again, you get the idea--and, importantly, whether or not you still want that cookie. This exercise can help determine why you reach for sweets, whether you're bored, anxious, needing a break from work or feeling isolated. When you understand the drive, you can select behaviors that fill that immediate need without derailing your long-term goals.
Instilling new habits. When trying to realize a brand new habit, like working out in the morning, consider what immediate pleasure you will receive beyond the long term effects of better physical and mental health. One way to do this is what Clear calls "temptation bundling"--coupling the behavior you need to do with a behavior you want to do. For example, if you love to curl up in bed with a good book at night, you can require yourself to meditate for five to ten minutes in bed before reading. If you want to cook more often, you can offer yourself some Netflix binging after a homemade meal. Just be sure the habit you want to do does not derail the habit you feel you need. Coupling a home-cooked meal with a pint of ice cream is unlikely to help you reduce body fat.
As we'll discuss further in the next article, associating an effective behavior with a satisfying reward helps make the behaviors we need to do feel more like the actions we were born to perform.