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  • Paul Hollywell

Creatures of habit

We are all creatures of habit … but habits can sometime undermine Successful Thinking by subconsciously controlling our behaviours. By understanding our habits better, we can try to ensure they don’t become unhelpful.

Breaking some of our unhelpful habits is possible

A habit is a behaviour normally done without thinking. Habits save us time and effort by not requiring us to make conscious decisions every time we encounter familiar situations. For example, how tiring would it be if every morning we had to decide what to do when we got out of bed? Thinking a thing through every time we faced a choice would give us brain ache by the end of the day. Subconsciously brushing our teeth and crossing the road aids our wellbeing and safety. Therefore, our ‘preprogramed behaviours’ are helpful in getting us through the day without overloading our precious, resource-constrained capacity to think.

However, habits can negatively affect our lives. For example, I work in an office where the Sandwich Lady announces her arrival by ringing a bell. This can often make me think “I’m hungry, so I had better go and buy a snack”. If I do this on a regular basis this could lead to me subconsciously associating the bell with ‘being hungry and needing to buy a snack’. I might not be consciously aware of this, but an unhealthy habit may form that might be difficult to change.

Experts tell us that habits are formed when a cue kicks off a routine behaviour that leads to a reward. Over time, with repetition, this pattern becomes more automatic, so we eventually stop thinking about it. For the above example, the bell would be the ‘cue’, buying a snack the ‘routine’, and eating the ‘reward’. So, you see how easily habits can form when we are not aware of what is happening. Once noticed – in this case, snacking between meals – how easy is it to break an unhelpful habit? Difficult, but not impossible.

Research has shown that it’s easier to replace an unhelpful habit with a better one – a less harmful or even positive one – than trying to break it. The crucial steps for this are:

1. Correctly identifying the key elements of the habit (i.e. cue, routine and reward)

2. Discovering what deep desire or craving the reward is meeting. (Not always immediately obvious and might take some investigating to work it out).

3. Discovering the actual cue that leads to this behaviour (i.e. location, time, emotional state, other people, an immediately preceding action). What triggers the behaviour?

4. Planning for the cue that actually triggers the habit and replacing it with a behaviour that delivers the desired reward.

So, how might this work for the ‘snacking between meals’ example?

1. The bell is the cue, buying a snack is the routine, and the satisfaction from eating is the reward.

2. However, am I doing this because I’m hungry or have I another desire?

3. Is the actual cue because I am:

a. sat at a desk in particular office (location)

b. hungry when the Sandwich Lady arrives (time)

c. bored when the Sandwich Lady arrives (emotional state)

d. lacking social interaction when the Sandwich Lady arrives (other people)

e. distracted when the Sandwich Lady arrives (immediately preceding action).

4. If (for example) the habit is actually caused by a ‘lack of social interaction’ rather than ‘hunger’, I could plan to have a tea break and a short conversation with a colleague before the Sandwich Lady arrives. If the habit is actually caused by ‘hunger’, I could plan to have a healthy snack (e.g. fruit) before the Sandwich Lady arrives.

Steps 3 and 4 may require some experimenting to discover what works in reality.

If habits rely on subconscious behaviours, then replacing unhelpful habits rely on conscious thought, effort, and a lot of persistence until new habits replace the old ones.

[To learn more about habits and how to change them, read ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change’ by Charles Duhigg, 2012]

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