Why can’t you get that good habit to stick?

I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and this writeup is an exploration of a few ideas I found there. Side-note, it’s a really great book.

First things first, let me show you what Duhigg calls a ‘habit loop:’

A habit involves a cue, something that tells your habit to kick in; a routine, what you actually do; and a reward, what that action does for you. Here’s a quick example: when I hear my phone buzz I pick it up and check the notification which makes me feel like I’m on top of things. The cue is my phone buzz, my routine is to check the notification, my reward is to feel like I’m accomplishing something (I just love to see those red notification dots go away!). For better or worse that’s a habit, I do it without even thinking.

But what about when we want to create a new habit? It’s probably not currently a habit because it’s hard or painful or generally not fun. Checking notifications is one thing, it’s a habit I basically fell into because it’s easy. But we want productive helpful habits right?

So it’s the new year, and you’ve resolved to get up earlier every morning to hit the gym, a very productive and helpful habit. And you did, a few times, like January 2 through 4, but then it was cold and you missed a day. But you don’t give up that easily, you got back to it for a day or two, but then you were tired and it was the weekend and who gets up early on the weekend anyway? The next week you only made it to the gym twice, but you did wrestle with yourself to get out of bed a few other mornings. By the third week, it’s clearly not working and you’ve basically given up on the whole morning workout thing. Maybe you’re just not a morning person. But that would have been such a great habit, why couldn’t you get it to stick?

Duhigg recalls a study that was conducted with older folks coming out of knee or hip replacement surgery. Those surgeries are no walk in the park, and they require tremendous amounts of painful physical therapy to recover completely. The study required some of the participants write down their therapy plans while the rest didn’t do anything differently, everything else between the two groups was exactly the same. As you can guess, the group who wrote things down recovered much more quickly, two to three times faster than the other participants. It didn’t happen by magic, and the point isn’t just that you need to write your goals down, though that’s not a bad idea, the trick is in how they built habits.

For most of us humans, our willpower is about as reliable as a hedge fund’s returns (not very reliable). But it turns out that willpower is an essential component of creating a new habit. The cue is easy, the alarm goes off; the reward is obvious, more energy and a rockin’ bod. But the routine, actually getting out of bed when it’s dark, going outside to your car when it’s cold, wandering around the gym with people who look like they know what they’re doing, breaking a sweat at the crack of dawn, can be tough. That takes some willpower, which, again, isn’t our most reliable skill. This is where the hip-replacement story comes in. Those folks who wrote down their therapy plan didn’t have more willpower than the others, they weren’t even thinking about building habits, they were just following the instructions of the study. So what did they write? Interestingly, the common theme was a focus on pain points or difficulties in their routines where the temptation to quit would be most acute. The writing forced them to specifically confront those hard parts in their routine and make a plan to overcome them. They unknowingly designed their own ‘willpower habits,’ as Duhigg refers to them.

So here’s a quick takeaway: instead of intending to get up early and go the gym (or insert whatever habit you’d like to incorporate here), what if we specifically think about the pain points, write them out, and determine ahead of time what we’re going to do or think when the pain happens? After the habit cue, what’s the first thought or feeling that submarines your routine? Make a small plan for that specific thing. Then take the next one, and the next one, until all of the excuses and obstacles give way to a new habit. If it’s good enough for those elderly folks striving to walk again, it ought to be good enough for me.

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