Habits, Part 4
It may seem too obvious to have to say it, but in addition to identifying all the components of a particular habit loop, there’s one more vital element to changing it: the belief that you can do it. In the case of a years- or decades-long habit you’ve tried and failed to change or do away with numerous times, the belief that you have any control over it may have faded long ago. Resignation has likely set in. So it’s probably best to not pick one of those habits to experiment with changing.
The belief that I couldn’t exercise in the morning because I’m not a morning person was bolstered time and time again by my failed attempts to do so. I tried exercising with different tapes, DVDs, or TV programs. I experimented with different kinds of exercise. I signed up for many a gym membership. The closest I ever came to regular exercise in the morning was walking to work when I had to. But the interesting thing about my current morning exercise routine is that it didn’t take hold as a result of any intention on my part—or any change in my belief that I could exercise in the morning. However, I had already changed another long-standing habit I previously believed was set in concrete—which is the time I get up in the morning. Because I don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time in the morning, I don’t have any external motivation not to stay up late and then get up late. Even so, getting up late often made me feel like I was behind before my day had begun. So over a period of several months, I successfully managed to change both my bedtime and my waking time.
Getting out of bed an hour and a half to two hours earlier than I used to turned out to have several rewards. The first was a feeling of accomplishment. The second was having more time in the morning. And the third—much more subtle, but possibly the most valuable of all—was a change in my belief about how not-being-a-morning-person doomed me in certain ways. When I look back at the beginning stages of my exercise habit loop, I see how having more time provided me with the opening to start taking morning walks. It was kind of a novelty at first, since I sometimes found myself out walking around when I would normally have been rolling out of bed. But I don’t think that habit loop would have developed so quickly without the change in my belief.
When it comes to the mechanics of changing an existing habit, Charles Duhigg says there isn’t one specific formula because one habit is different from another. And, as we know all too well, people are different from each other, too. But Duhigg offers an overall framework for changing habits:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
On his website, there’s a link to A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas, the Appendix from his book, The Power of Habit. It has some good suggestions and a lot more detail about the steps of his framework for changing habits. You can read it online or print a pdf copy.
Once you understand how a habit operates—once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward—you gain power over it.
– Charles Duhigg