In May, I received an email from Charles Duhigg, NY Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit. Or rather, I should say that I received an email from Charles Duhigg’s publisher/publicist who is very good at finding bloggers who have written about psychological topics and who might be interested in his book. Their marketing research was right on target, (see chapter 7, How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do), no pun intended. I am, indeed, interested in certain psychological research, and I did find his book fascinating and very well written. In my former life as a psychotherapist, I would even have recommended it to patients. Instead, I will recommend it to you.
How many times have you discovered a pattern of behavior that you would like to change? How many times have you been successful in making the change?
If you struggle as much as I do with habit change, it is not because you are weak-willed. It is likely because you do not have a complete understanding of the behavior you are trying to change, what cues the behavior, and how the reward impacts you. Even if you are clear about those elements, you might have ignored the necessary step of substituting a competing behavior to replace the one you are trying to change.
Not sure you know what I am talking about? No surprise to me. Most of us are not very good at even realizing that we are engaged in habitual behavior until someone else points it out to us.
I recently had a visit from my nephew and his family. Near the end of their stay, his 3-1/2 year old son was using the word “actually” appropriately in many of his comments. “Actually, that’s a tufted titmouse. He takes a seed from the feeder, then goes to the bush to eat it.” It was not until he left that my sister-in-law and I heard me using “actually” often in my comments. It took a 3-1/2 year old to help me see habitual speech behavior that has been with me for who knows how long.
Duhigg’s book is an excellent exploration of habits and their power in our personal lives, in business, and in society. He clearly presents a framework for habit change that most individuals and any therapist can use:
• Identify the routine
• Experiment with rewards
• Isolate the cue
• Have a plan
Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (p. 274). Random House, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Part of what appeals to me about this Framework is that it presents a simple system. My personal inclination in life is toward making things systematic and understanding the systems that apply when something is not of my making; so this approach is appealing to my sense of order.
- Observe and assess the behavior. Determine what is included in this habit. Get a good picture of the whole thing and how it functions in your life. In Duhigg’s words, identify the routine.
- Take a look at just what is rewarding to you in this behavior. Since the reward is a large part of what is keeping the habit in place, understand it well and look at as many aspects of the reward as you can. You may think one part of the reinforcement is what is maintaining your behavior when another part is actually the driver. As Duhigg says, experiment with rewards.
- Get a good understanding of just what the trigger is for the habit. What sets it off? For me, sitting down at my desk at work in the morning is my cue to check email. Even if I have decided to do something else first (like write a blog post), the strong pull is for me to check email. According to Duhigg’s framework, isolate the cue.
- Finally, in order to change an habitual behavior, you need to determine what you want to do instead, how you will make yourself aware of the cue so you do not go into automatic, what reward you will use to alter the habit, how long you will do the changed behavior to solidify the new habit…as Mr. Duhigg suggests, have a plan.
The simplicity of this framework is part of its power…and part of the power of habits in our lives. If your own habits, the habits of your business or organization, or the habits of our society are important to you, take a look at this book. It is simultaneously a good read and enlightening.
Do you have experiences with habits and habit change that you would be willing to share? WAIT…this is where you would usually STOP READING. Maybe you could change that habit and offer a comment today? Your reward? My profound thanks for reading and commenting. Just enter your comment below.