Did you know that almost half of our waking life is composed of near-automatic, unconscious habits? It’s true, and the research is showing this to be the case.
Think about it: the things we do habitually create who we will become in the future. As Jeff Olsen says in his book The Slight Edge, the things we do are like seeds, and as we continue to do them throughout a period of time, they inevitably result in a harvest.
Imagine the power, then, of harnessing and mastering the processes that govern habits? Whether we want to get rid of a bad habit–like smoking–or create a good habit–like daily exercise–Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is essential reading.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg draws upon the latest in the scientific research of goal formation, willpower, addiction, and the applications this has for an individual, a business, and a society at large. Although my focus is on personal application, The Power of Habit is just as applicable to the business and political world.
Although there are plenty of books out there in the market that discuss the achievement of goals and habits (recall, for example, Stephen Covey’s self-improvement classic, The Seven Habits of Hightly Effective People), Duhigg’s books focuses on the actual science behind the creation and alteration of habits.
For example, researchers now believe they know where habits are actually stored in the brain: the Basal Ganglia. This is the part of the brain responsible for automatic behavior– behavior that you are not always consciously aware of. So although all habits begin as a conscious decision at some point, the more solidified it becomes as a habit, the more unconscious we are of engaging with and performing the actions.
Take driving for example. Remember when you first learned how to drive? How painfully aware you were of every little movement? Remember all the things you had to pay attention to simultaneously as you performed a simple act, like backing out of a driveway?
And yet, we perform most of these actions with complete ease now; our mind is often elsewhere; or, we completely zone out.
This is because the brain is always on a lookout for ways to save effort. Habit formation is the brain’s way of decreasing effort; it stores the actions in the Basal Ganglia so that the conscious mind, the prefrontal cortex, is freed up to think about other things, like what you’ll have for dinner, or watch on television.
The Habit Loop
The key to changing a bad habit, or to creating a good one, is to understand what researchers call “the habit loop.” According to Duhigg, this consists of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward.
The cue is “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”
The “Golden Rule of habit change,” as Duhigg calls it, is to “keep the same cue and the same reward,” but to change the routine. The Power of Habit includes detailed tips, research, and methods for doing exactly that.
One of the most interesting findings surrounding the science of habits and goal setting is what researchers call “Keystone habits.” Keystone habits are behaviors that have a rippling effect out into other areas of your life. For example, studies show that exercising regularly can increase the likelihood that you will change your diet for the better, without even setting out to do this intentionally; regular exercise tends to make one more conscious of their health.
Another interesting keystone habit is, surprisingly, making your bed: “Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and strong skills at sticking with a budget.”
If you are interested in finally getting a hold on the habits you want to change or create, The Power of Habit is one of the best books out there. I’ve personally conquered several bad habits which I had previously despaired of ever being able to change. I cannot recommend it enough for those readers seeking self-improvement.