All the homo sapiens think that we are in control of our lives. We think we are the decision makers of every single act of ours. That’s not the truth there is someone else who takes decisions for 40% of our life, Mr. Habit. Mr. Habit switches on the auto pilot mode whenever we encounter a familiar road, in this case a familiar situation. We don’t think, analyse, deduce and make the decision of squeezing the paste on our toothbrush. As soon as we hold our toothbrush, the other hand extends for the toothpaste, squeezes almost a similar amount everyday, without even a thought of it passing our mind.
Habit is necessary, in fact, without habits we will have to waste our time and brain power deciding about things we are familiar with. The catch here is the fact, our mind doesn’t have an alarm system which goes off when we indulge or cultivate a habit which is harmful. For our brain it is just another habit. The Power of Habit is such that a single habit can break or make our life. That’s when I read the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.
Habit is a, “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” In this book, Duhigg not only tells us why we do what we do but also how to change it. Habits follow a snowball effect, one habit changed or made, may result in changing a lot of other habits.
Lisa Allen was an obese, drowning in debt, practically jobless and compulsive smoker. One fine day in her vacation to Cairo, after her husband had left her; she decides to give up smoking. Though smoking doesn’t seem to have any effect on her finances or skills; the surprising fact is: Four years after Lisa quit smoking she had lost 60 pounds, run a marathon, enrolled for a masters and even bought a home of her own. The reason being the changing of that single habit of smoking, unknowingly spilled over to her other habits and there was this dramatic turn in her life.
The snowball effect of habits not only works in the domain of individuals but also in the domains of organization. The Aluminum Corporation of America, popularly known as the Alcoa, in 1986 due to a series of missteps by the management saw a withdrawal of both the customers and investors. To firefight this situation, in 1987 Alcoa hired a government bureaucrat Paul O’Neill. For most of the people present in the ballroom of that Manhattan hotel he was someone unheard off. When he went to podium to give his first speech as the CEO to the customers, investors and employees; everyone was eagerly waiting to hear the strategies he is going to adopt to make Alcoa profitable again.
O’Neill on that day, did not speak anything about profits, the only thing that he spoke about was safety of his employees and how he wished to make Alcoa the safest place to work in. Everyone was disappointed and had given up hopes. O’Neill stuck to his agenda of safety and put all the new processes required for ensuring safety. In 1996, O’ Neill had been in Alcoa for a decade and the stock price of Alcoa had increased by 200 percent, silencing all his critics and making him a case study in Harvard Business School. Alcoa also became one of the safest places to work, as the risk of getting injured in a software company writing codes, was higher than a person handling molten aluminum in Alcoa. These habits which can change an organization are called the keystone habits. Keystone habits are habits to which everyone agrees and have the possibility of starting a ripple of new positive habits.
Habits not only have the power to change the lives of individuals, but of organizations and societies too. Habits have the power of transformation. To use this great power of habits we first need to understand how habits work. According to Duhigg and most of the researchers, any habit has three parts; the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is the stimulus which triggers the habit. The routine is the act that we do in auto pilot once the cue presents itself. Reward is the outcome which indicates the act to stop as it has reached its culmination. The Habit loop structure though maybe debatable as the reward itself may not trigger a cue.
The most interesting thing about the habit loop is that after a while of cultivating a new habit, the feeling of achieving the reward presents itself as soon as we see the cue; thus creating a craving which drives us through the routine even if we feel guilty about the act later on. The only way to change a habit is to replace the old routine with a new positive routine. For example the most popular rehabilitation group, Alcoholics Anonymous, calls all its participants in the evening which is a major cue for getting drunk, and makes them talk about themselves for hours. The reason most of the people drink is not to get drunk but to forget or get relief of something. The cue evening remains same, the reward relief remains same; as people feel lighter after talking about their life; but the routine instead of drinking is meeting in small groups. Thus the habit of compulsive drinking is changed.
So if you want to change a habit which you perceive to be ruining your life or wasting your time. Follow the following four steps, as Duhigg mentions in his book:
- Identify the routine: The very first thing that you need to do is identify which habit exactly you want to change and why. You must take only one habit at a time. I will take the example of midnight snacking for me. I had this problem of eating at midnight. The problem with this habit was, I was not hungry for breakfast and also had acidity issues.
- Experiment with Rewards: The next step is to find out what exactly you get out of the routine or act. What is the reward that you are looking for? For my case I had three things which I thought maybe my reward. 1) I was hungry. 2) I needed something to munch as I read a book in the night. 3) Sound sleep. So I experimented by forcing not to eat one day, and I didn’t feel hungry at all. The next day I kept a glass of juice while reading the book and that worked well too. The next day I had my midnight snack and forced myself not to sleep immediately, it resulted in me snacking one more time before I went to bed. So I found my reward was sound sleep.
- Isolate the Cue: We now need to find out the cue, which triggers your habit. The cue can be anything. So it is very difficult to exactly say that this is the cue for my habit. Thus researchers came up with the following methodology: To fill the following list everyday for the habit;
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately preceding reaction
After I filled this list for a week I found that, everything else was random except the fact that I ate everyday around at 1:00 AM. So time was my cue.
- Have a plan: Now since we have identified the habit loop now we need to change the habit. So as the golden rule of habit change says, I can only change the routine. So we must have a plan to change the routine. My plan was thus:
Every night at 1:00 AM I shall drink a bottle of water and take 100 deep breaths.
I never reached 100 I fell asleep before that. Thus my cue, the time is same, the reward sound sleep is same but I replaced my routine of snacking with drinking water and taking deep breathes.
So, now all of you know what habits are, how important habits are and how to change the habits using the four simple steps. So get ready, change your lives and take control over the 40% of your life which you never seem to have control over.