The Science of Habits and Changing Them

9 Apr

via Keeper of the Home

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

No matter how noble or successful a single action proves to be, it will always be infinitely more so if it becomes a habit. Most actions are only useful as habits: one jogging run does next to nothing for us, just as once brushing our teeth is generally worthless. Cultivating good habits is an important part of learning to be an effective individual. On the other hand, many habits we already have are time-, energy-, and health-draining; these habits we try to cut off or change. Much of life is consumed with our own internal battles between good and bad habits. It’s incredibly important, especially for Changemakers, to learn how habits work and how to influence them, so as to tip the battle in our favor.

The generally accepted model of habits and their formation comes from behavioral psychology. This is the Antecedent-Process-Consequence model, a simple cause-and-effect flowchart that’s driven the theories behind much of cognitive and behavioral theories today.

Behavioral Model

Charles Duhigg, author of the bestseller, “The Power of Habit,” simplified this terminology to the Cue-Routine-Reward model.

Charles Duhigg Model

The idea is simple: first, a stimulus, or cue, occurs. This can be anything from entering a room, meeting a person, or getting stressed over money. Once the brain is aware of the cue, it immediately triggers an urge to follow through with a process, or routine, like smoking a cigarette or surfing the web. This routine triggers some sort of reward, which, if it’s good enough, will tell the brain that this routine is a good one, and to keep linking it with the cue. For example, if you surf the web when you’re stressed about money, you may become more relaxed. This tells your brain that you become more relaxed when you surf the web, and so it remembers to do it again.

Whether your goal is to encourage a good habit or destroy a bad one, knowing this cycle and understanding how to change it is a powerful tool. This model suggests three separate ways to deal with habits, each based on changing one of these elements. This post will proceed from least to most effective, and will hopefully give Changemakers the tools they need to live a happier, more productive life.

Changing the Cue

One of the least-discussed methods of changing behavior is that of dealing with the trigger that causes it. Behavioral psychology calls this practice “stimulus control,” and suggests many helpful techniques for influencing this part of the habit model. The simplest example of stimulus control is simply avoiding the stimulus: if you simply have to smoke every time you see a pack on your counter, make sure there aren’t any there! However, this usually doesn’t solve the problem completely, as most stimuli can’t be completely avoided. Desensitization involves repeatedly exposing yourself to steadily greater levels of the stimulus without performing the routine, so your brain disassociates it with the cue. Sensitization is the opposite: establishing a different link in your brain between a cue and an undesirable response. One extreme example I’ve heard used is linking the drinking of wine with vomiting, ensuring that the brain stays as far away from liquor as possible. While it’s not the most effective, Changing the Cue is still an impressive technique that can greatly augment the effectiveness of others.

Changing the Reward

The reward is where the majority of behavioral psychology focuses. An example of reward manipulation is the now-classic example of Pavlov’s dogs, who, having been provided with a repetitive reward each time a bell was rung, began expecting the reward when the bell was heard. Many programs exist, including the current trend of “gamification,” which seek to either provide incentives for good behavior or punish bad practices. Most incentive programs in companies work this way, as well. Examples of applying Changing the Reward to your personal lives include rewarding yourself with half an hour of web-surfing when you exercise well, or snapping a rubber band against your wrist whenever you behave inappropriately.

Changing the Routine

Changing the Routine is, in general, the most effective of the three techniques, and is the one which Charles Duhigg himself detailed most in his book. The idea of Changing the Routine involves finding a routine that can be performed when the cue happens, and gives the same reward. Most behavioral psychologists call this “substitution,” as it substitutes a healthy habit for a bad one while keeping the other variables the same. A classic example would include smokers switching to fruit or sunflower seeds each time they wanted a smoke (or perhaps more effectively, using nicotine gum). While finding a successful replacement for the old routine can be difficult, as the rewards for most routines differ by just enough to be ineffective, if one is found, it can prove to be the single most effective and least mentally traumatic way to both end bad habits and encourage good ones.

As a Changemaker, we seek to change the world in important, meaningful ways. In order to do so, however, we must first change the ineffective parts of ourselves. These techniques represent some of the best ways to do so. Take these and use them to make yourself a better Changemaker, and a better person.

Please comment below:

What habits do you want to change or start?

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2 Responses to “The Science of Habits and Changing Them”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Gambling for Healthy Habits | Observations of a Changemaker - April 10, 2013

    […] our last post, we discussed some of the best ways to influence our behavior for the better. One of these […]

  2. Understand Customers, Understand Yourself: Means-End Analysis applied to Habit Substitution | Observations of a Changemaker - April 19, 2013

    […] you remember when we looked at the basic structure of habits? We mentioned that all habits have a basic structure of Cue-Routine-Reward. The Means-End Model […]

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