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Breaking Bad: How to Make Good Habits from Bad Ones

Can’t break those bad habits? Find it difficult to take up good habits? It’s time to take your ingrained bad habit reward-system and learn how to beat it!
by Carrie M. King | Aug 1 2019

The American writer, historian, and philosopher, Will Durant, once penned a sentence that’s so perfect, so on-the-money, it’s most often attributed to Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do,” he wrote, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Will “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Aristotle” Durant’s epigram became widely-known, repeated, and shared for the simple reason that human beings are creatures of habit and most of us want to be habitually excellent.

From a young age, we’re warned about the detrimental nature of developing bad habits, and are encouraged to take up good ones. By adulthood, it can feel impossible to change the ones that have already become ingrained. Nevertheless we read books, trawl articles, and stream TV shows about the habits of other people to make us feel better and worse about ourselves.

Luckily our nifty brains are good at rewiring and can adapt to new habits and situations. Even if we don’t believe ourselves capable of such big adjustments. Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power of Habit explains the basics of habit-formation. As well as how we can use our brain’s natural tendency to take shortcuts to our advantage. It’s a fascinating and practical read and if you’re struggling to form good habits, I recommend picking up the book. If you only have a few minutes, you can read the key insights on Blinkist. And if you’ve got one single minute, then check out the video above where Page and Turner explain how habits are formed—and how you can change them!

Charles Duhigg and The Power of Habit

We are becoming increasingly obsessed with other people’s habits, morning habits, in particular, seem to be having a moment. It’s important to not just learn how other people’s good habits affect positive change in their lives, but to understand how yours work. Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better, and is the go-to guy when it comes to habit-changing. Last year, he joined Caitlin for an episode of Blinkist’s podcast, Simplify, to talk about habits, productivity, and how they play off one another. In the video above, we explain one of the key ideas about how habits can be changed, but now, let’s dive a little deeper into the insights from The Power of Habit to learn how you can put manners on those bad habits of yours.

Good Habits, Bad Habits, and How We Make Them

Here is one important thing to know about your brain: it’s always trying to help you, save you time, and make you happy. Over the course of your life, it learned some shortcuts which it takes regularly in order to conserve your energy. This is how habits get formed. They’re short routes to pleasure and reward, and if you can do certain tasks out of habit, like autopilot your walk to work, it saves you mental energy and frees up your brain for other tasks. MIT researchers confirmed this with experiments on mice in the ‘90s discovering that something that demands concentration at first—in the case of the mice, finding chocolate through a maze—eventually becomes an effortless habit with enough practice. According to a 2006 paper by a researcher at Duke University, up to 40% of actions we perform daily are habits.

“It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors.”
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Habits can be broken down into three parts of the same mental loop: cue, routine, and reward. First comes the cue. In this case, let’s say the cue is eating dinner. Having finished dinner, there’s a spike in your brain activity as you decide which habit is appropriate for the situation. On autopilot, you might decide that you now absolutely must have dessert, after years of developing this routine. Once you eat something sweet out of routine, your brain activity increases as you register the rewarding feeling of having completed the loop. This pleasurable sensation reinforces the link between the cue, the routine, and the reward, which means your habit becomes even more ingrained. Habits are deeply resilient, and stick around because they create a feeling of craving. Therefore, instead of “breaking” them, it’s much easier if you can replace them. The good news is, however, that you can also learn to crave good things, like exercise!

Want To Change Bad Habits? Don’t Resist, Redirect

Man thinking about stopping to smoke

If you’ve ever tried to give up anything, you’ll know that the craving for the thing you’re trying to avoid is hard to ignore. Cravings will gnaw away at you until you give in to them, because your brain wants you to complete the cycle and get that rewarding feeling. According to Duhigg, the key to quitting any bad habit is: don’t try to resist the craving; redirect it. That means, instead of trying to completely change your behavior and to avoid all the cues, you need to start changing the routine.

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Studies on former smokers have shown that by identifying the cues and rewards around their smoking habit and replacing the routine of smoking a cigarette with a similar reward, such as chewing Nicorette, the chances of staying off cigarettes increases significantly. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous use a similar substitution method. AA asks people what they crave about drinking, and then try to facilitate creating a similar feeling for the person without involving alcohol, such as creating a space for companionship and relaxation, for example. Belief also comes into changing habits or addictions in a big way. If you can either believe in your own capacity to change a habit, or believe in a purpose beyond yourself that drives you to resist the old habit, then you’re far more likely to be successful in changing it.

Make a Habit of Focusing on Small Wins

Big changes are built on a series of small ones. That’s why Duhigg recommends focusing on developing some “keystone habits” that encourage other good habits to form as a result. Making broad, sweeping changes to your life is really, really hard. However, focusing on developing one really fundamental good, small habit, will pave the way to creating a whole host of other beneficial changes. For example, if you want to lose weight but it seems incredibly daunting because you’d have to change so many aspects of your life, focus on one good thing that you know you can achieve. In this case, it might be keeping a food journal, or going for a 15-minute walk every day after dinner. These habits provide small wins that mean you get that feeling of reward early on in the process and help you believe that change is possible. This can, in turn, trigger a whole wave of positive changes because you’ve seen you have the power to make good things happen in one area of your life, so why not others?

“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

The Best Good Habit to Develop? Willpower

gym dumbbells

Willpower is real, and unfortunately, inconsistent. Some days you’ll have plenty of it, and others, for a variety of reasons, you won’t be able to resist any cravings. And that’s okay. Any process of change is a series of successes and failures. If you treat your willpower like a muscle that you can train—and exhaust. Then you’ll be able to use it in a more productive way, so that you’ll be likely to change your behavior and your habits. To strengthen your willpower, it’s really important to understand what you need when you’re feeling at your weakest. By developing a system or habit that helps you to react well in times of low willpower, you’ll be better able to consistently replace your routines, and still get the lovely flood of rewarding brain chemicals once the habit loop is completed. Make it easy on yourself by examining what your needs are when you’re at a low ebb, and provide yourself with easy tools to make sure you can continue to change those habits!

To get more insights on how you can become master of your habits, just like Charles Duhigg, you can check out the main ideas from his book, The Power of Habit, on Blinkist.

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