Habit forming: how to break the cycle
Words / Jan McLeod
Did you know research indicates approximately 40 per cent of what we do is habit? If you take a moment to reflect on this statistic, it’s incredibly revealing.
Whether you’re seeking to create a personal wellbeing plan for yourself or a broader workplace wellbeing plan for all employees it highlights the importance of understanding the role habits play and how habits are formed. It emphasises why you need to design habit change into your approach for achieving change. It also explains why habit change like all change occurs over time.
Role of habits
When discussing habits, there are two key facts to highlight about your brain. Your brain needs a constant supply of energy because its activities are energy intensive, particularly when it’s undertaking analysis in order to make a decision. Your brain is designed to be energy efficient; it seeks to allocate and use its limited energy supply wisely.
The brain creates habits to help it with energy management. It creates and uses habits to avoid having to do the energy-intense activity of analysis before every decision. You make thousands of decisions each day; some require analysis but many do not and hence they are habit driven.
Your brain lays down memories that integrate thought, behaviour and emotion. Some of these memories drive your habits, information your brain calls upon to allow you to make day-to-day living decisions, including decisions related to your wellbeing. This is why habits feel automatic to you, why you do not pause often in making these decisions. It’s also why, when you trigger a habit you’re trying to avoid, you can often feel as if you made the decision before you thought about it.
The habit loop
Charles Duhigg wrote a great book called The Power of Habit in which he explains the habit loop. It comprises three core elements: a cue giving rise to a trigger, the habit behaviour and a reward. The cue triggers or initiates the habit. Let’s take a very simple wellbeing example. Let’s assume you suffer from mid-afternoon fatigue. You may be experiencing it for many different reasons: you skipped lunch, you’ve been sitting at your desk without a break for hours, you haven’t been getting eight hours of quality sleep or you’re experiencing a particularly busy period at work where you’re working to challenging deadlines.
The mid-afternoon energy slump can act as a cue to trigger or initiate specific behaviour, the second part of the habit loop. The behaviour triggered may include seeking out a chocolate muffin or some sweet biscuits, possibly a chocolate bar or perhaps a double-strength coffee. Is this sounding like something you may do? Do not worry, you are not alone.
The behaviour leads to you getting a reward, the third part of the habit loop. If you adopted any of the above behaviour, your reward is a temporary burst of energy from the sugar or caffeine. Now, I could digress here to give you alternative strategies that will give you sustainable energy but I’ll save them for another column.
If you can recognise and gain insight into your habits, you have the opportunity to change the associated routines and create new habits, in particular more productive and useful ones that support and enable your wellbeing.
Making time to notice and observe your habit loops becomes the essential first step of changing them. You begin by identifying the cues and the triggers for the behaviour you wish to change. Cues generally fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, the actions of others or the activity immediately preceding your behaviour.
If we return to the mid-afternoon energy slump, it’s likely the cue fits into three categories. It may be time, as it’s mid-afternoon; location, as it’s at work; and possibly emotional state, particularly if you’re under extra work pressure. When you combine these three cues, they are definitely sufficient to trigger the behaviour of seeking out a sugar or caffeine hit. Following through on this behaviour also gets you your reward, a short energy surge. What’s challenging about this example is that the energy surge will be short and has a risk of setting up another energy slump that triggers the same behaviour. Before you’re aware of what’s happening you may find yourself seeking out more sugar or caffeine hits for the rest of your day.
Habits promote habits:
Habits lead to the creation of other habits. This fact can work for you in fostering great wellbeing habits or it can work against you. Have you ever had a day where you have avoided sugar or caffeine until mid-afternoon only to then succumb to the mid-afternoon energy slump? Because you succumbed, you then threw caution to the wind and reached the conclusion there was no point in trying to eat healthily, so why not have something decidedly unhealthy for dinner?
However, you can also use habits to create momentum for creating more productive wellbeing habits. Once you are able to make one small habit change that leads to one positive change, you have more confidence and are more likely to make another positive habit change. Focus on changing, swapping or replacing the behaviour gives you the best chance of achieving sustainable change