Making a Change: How to Use Habits for Long-Term Success

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  • January 23, 2017


Last week, I wrote about the importance of “deep work,” focusing on activities of cognitive worth. To increase one’s ability to do deep work, Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, recommends forming good habits.

This got me thinking about habits and my battle over the years to form good ones and rid myself of bad ones. I decided to read Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, a book I found both educational and entertaining. The book looks into the science and research behind habit formation, and it’s filled with extraordinary stories about how good habits have led to success. The Power of Habit delves into the stories of individuals like Michael Phelps, organizations like Alcoa and initiatives for social change like the civil rights movements led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

When I finished the book, I felt optimistic that all people, regardless of their circumstances in life, can change their habits. It’s clear to me that our future is defined by the habits we form and perpetuate now; if we want to change or improve our future, we must work to change our habits.

The Habit Loop

All habits consist of a three-step loop, according to Duhigg. “First, there is a cue (e.g., your teeth feel dirty), a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which behavior to use. Then there is the routine (e.g., brush your teeth), which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward (e.g., clean teeth).” Duhigg talks about his habit of going to the cafeteria at work every afternoon to buy a cookie. He wanted to change that habit, so he used his knowledge of the habit loop to go about doing so.

4 Steps for Changing Any Habit

According to Duhigg, there isn’t one catch-all formula for changing habits. He does offer some solid advice that he found worked consistently, though.

Identify the Habit

What habit are you looking to change? Do you want to stop smoking? Would you like to stop eating snacks after dinner? Are you trying to stop watching so much TV? Identify a specific habit that’s causing you problems before you dig deeper.

Understand the Cue

Think of cues as triggers. Once the brain starts telling you that you want some sort of reward, the goal is to understand how you go from that cue to engaging in a potentially problematic habit. Ask yourself the following five questions:

  1. Where are you?
  2. What time is it?
  3. What’s your emotional state?
  4. Who else is around?
  5. What action preceded the urge?

Experiment with Rewards

Try to understand the craving you think the habit is satisfying. Duhigg suggests asking questions such as:

  1. Is it from a need to fit in?
  2. Do you get an emotional charge?
  3. Are you trying to relax?
  4. Do you actually crave something else?

Try to find a different reward that satisfies the craving. Experiment with different rewards until you find one that works.

Change the Routine

Once you’re able to identify the cue and the reward, you can substitute a new routine for the old one. You can’t control the cue, and oftentimes you can’t change the reward, either. What you can change is the routine.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. About a year ago, I realized that, after lunch, I struggled with keeping up my energy. I’d keep going back to email (my routine) as a distraction and as a way to increase my energy (reward). Frankly, there was a lot of wasted time in that habit, and the reward was rarely what I was hoping for. After reading about the benefits of naps, I decided to replace my previous routine — excessive email-checking — with a new one: naps. It worked.

The Power of Purpose of Eradicating Bad Habits

If you want to change a habit, you need to find an alternative routine to replace it with. Habits can be difficult to change, especially for addictions like smoking, alcohol, gambling or overeating. When life gets difficult, it’s easy to fall back into old, destructive habits.

Duhigg uses a number of examples, from the Alcoholics Anonymous program to Tony Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts winning the Super Bowl, to illustrate that the odds of success go up dramatically when you believe genuinely that you can make a change. This belief is essential, and it can become contagious within a group. Change can happen: Alcoholics can stop drinking, smokers can stop smoking and perennial losers can become champions when they truly start believing.

Keystone Habits

This was my favorite concept in the book. Keystone habits are those that have a positive impact on different areas of your life, like exercise, eating dinner with your family each night or making your bed every morning. I’ve noticed that I have an important keystone habit: my “miracle morning,” which I’ve discussed before. When I take an hour or two in the morning for gratitude and affirmation, exercise, reading my personal and company set point (purpose and values), and meditation, I feel substantially more prepared for the day. That daily habit has positive ripples throughout my life.

Duhigg discusses how eating dinner as a family leads to better homework habits with your kids. He talks about Phelps practicing “watching the videotape” at night and in the morning — visualizing his entire race, from putting on his goggles to stretching to warming up to diving into the pool to the number of strokes he would take. Duhigg also talks about people on weight loss plans keeping a food diary.

Since the new year began, I have been using the app “Way of Life” on my iPhone to track daily habits. For me, it’s similar to keeping a food diary; it helps me identify my current habits and build new habits for my life.

Good Habits Create Success

One of my favorite stories in the book was about how Starbucks decided to teach its employees positive habits to improve service. The company taught its employees a process for dealing with “inflection points” — unpleasant situations with customers — through a technique called the LATTE Method. In the LATTE Method, “We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.” When someone gets angry with you, you typically have to draw on your reserve of willpower to keep the situation calm; the LATTE Method helps turn unpleasant situations into a habit or routine, which makes them easier to manage.

Being able to draw on willpower like that is a keystone habit for success. I’ve talked about grit a number of times before, and willpower is a big component of grit. To illustrate this, Duhigg cites research about eighth-grade students who show high willpower. These students did better throughout high school and got into better colleges.

Habits Influence Shopping Decisions

Companies use our habits and cues to market to us. Duhigg talks about how Target’s statisticians figured out how to identify moms-to-be down to the trimester. Expectant mothers are a key demographic for Target; they’re at a critical stage of their lives where they begin to purchase lots of new goods and services. Target attributes its nearly $20 billion in sales growth in the mid-2000s to being able to identify and market to expectant mothers. Understanding how companies can exploit our habits can make us less susceptible to their marketing.

Making a Change

We often hear that “leopards can’t change their spots.” Maybe that’s true in some cases, but in many cases, changing your habits is possible. The key is in being aware of your habits, what drives them and what you get out of them, and in believing that you can make a change.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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