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Most of us would like to change something about ourselves or our lives. We eat too much. We smoke. We don't exercise. We're stuck in the wrong job. We spend too much and save too little. We look for love in the wrong places.
Some of us have a few things we'd like to change. Some people want to transform their entire lives.
But can we? And if so, how?
Charles Duhigg may have found the key.
Duhigg, a reporter at the New York Times, spent three years interviewing researchers, marketing mavens and neuroscientists to understand better how our brains work, and how we can use that knowledge in our daily lives.
He's published the results in a new book, The Power of Habit.
The bottom line: We're running on autopilot most of the time, and we don't really know it. We are controlled to a remarkable degree by our habits, not just by our conscious choices.
"A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day, " he writes.
Even people in crisis can use this knowledge to turn their lives around.
We can't unlearn bad habits. The way to defeat them is to learn new, better ones.
The book begins with the case of "Lisa Allen, " a young woman who did precisely that. She began as an overweight, heavy-drinking smoker with debts and no job. Her husband had just left her. A few years she was fit, clean, gainfully employed and in charge of her life. She ran marathons, bought a house, got engaged, and began a master's program.
What's This? ..And her turnaround began when she took the decision to change one "keystone" habit, and quit smoking. That change led to other changes, and so on.
Habits are a neurological reality, Duhigg reports. Neurologists studying scans of Lisa Allen's brain found that "one set of neurological patterns her old habits had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa' habits changed, so had her brain."
But how do you change a bad habit?
According to Duhigg, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe all habits break down into three steps: The cue, the habit (which he calls 'the routine') and the reward.
The cue is what triggers the habit in the first place walking past the pastry shop, having a coffee, and so on. The reward is the craving the habit is really designed to satisfy.
The trick to changing is to identify those three elements, and then to divert them into something more productive.
He illustrates with an example from his own life. Duhigg says he was putting on weight. How did he change?
1.Find the bad habit.
Duhigg noticed he had put on weight. Why? What had changed? He realized he had started taking a break from work each afternoon, walking to the New York Times cafeteria, and eating a big chocolate chip cookie.
2. Find the reward.
What is the real reward, or payoff, you are seeking? In other words, in Duhigg's case, what was the payoff that got him started on this habit in the first place? What craving was he trying to satisfy?
..You might think that was obvious. Surely you eat a cookie to eat a cookie, right?
Well, not really. Was it a need for food? To relieve the mid-afternoon boredom? An excuse to stretch his legs? A chance to chat to co-workers in the cafeteria?
The amazing thing is Duhigg didn't really know and research suggests that's true for most of us.
"We're often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors, " he reports. "Most cravings [are] obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway." Turns out there's a big difference between the habit and the real reward, or the real craving, that drives it.
How do you find the reward? Duhigg recommends a simple three-step technique: Experiment, write, wait.
First, experiment: Try out different alternative habits to see if you feel the same reward.
Was his cookie habit just an excuse to stretch his legs? Duhigg tried going for a walk instead.
Was it a craving for food? He tried having an apple at his desk instead.
Second, after each experiment, try isolating by writing down the first three things that come to mind "emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you're feeling, or just the first three words that pop into your head."
...Why? Habit researchers found that the act of writing down is incredibly powerful. (This is also true of cognitive behavioral therapists). "It forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling, " writes Duhigg, and will help you later recall those emotions later.
Third, after doing that, he waited for fifteen minutes. He set an alarm. When it went off, he asked himself: Do you still feel the urge for that cookie?
That fifteen minutes is key, says Duhigg. If, fifteen minutes after, say, eating an apple, or going for a walk, you still feel the urge to go to the cafeteria, then you haven't found the real reward.
After a lot of experimentation, and reviewing your notes, you should be able to identify the real reward your habit is designed around.
3. Find the cue.
Typically, something sets us off. You light a cigarette when you have a cup of coffee. You reach for the ice-cream after dinner. And so on. To break the bad habit we need to find the cue.
Scientists have found that these typically fall into five categories: Location, time, emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action.
...What was Duhigg's cue? To find out, he waited until the craving struck and then noted down five things: Where am I? What time is it? What's my emotional state? Who else is around? And what action immediately preceded the urge?
After a few days he was able to isolate his cue: Time.
At around 3:30 pm every afternoon, he felt the need for a distraction from work, the kind, he notes, that came from gossiping with a friend.
Not everyone is in Lisa Allen's old shoes. But I'll bet everyone has some habits they could do without.