Breaking bad habits
COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2018 - 12:00am

You are a creature of habit, and you start and maintain habits to conserve mental power so you can handle more intricate and tricky concerns. These habits can be positive, negative or neutral but once established, they stay with you and lie in wait until they’re reactivated.

Habits are important in your life because about 40 to 45 percent of what you do every day is habits.  And a large percentage of whether you succeed or fail is based, not on your big strategy decisions, but on your habits.  The basic question is, why, when you reach 35, 40 or 50, do you suddenly lose 60 pounds and start running marathons; or after a lifetime of arrears, why do you abruptly change the way you use money and stash away something for the future?

Take the case of wearing seatbelts. In the not-so-distant past, you habitually failed to wear them. In 1984, 86 percent failed to buckle up, but by 2010 onwards, this “habit” had reversed, such that 85 percent now use their seatbelts as a matter of course. This behavior change did not entail knowledge of a new routine, as what occurs when you provide thousands of minutes learning to play the guitar or any musical instrument. After all, you already knew how to take the belt and insert the buckle. It became part of your consciousness because of the shifting standards in society prompted by legislation in some countries.

Social psychologists have revealed that a useful way of transforming many customary behaviors is to change your observations of the norms that rule them, which can result in reduced practice of bad habits. Studies establish that once you understand and think about the structure of a habit, it becomes more convenient to modify that habit. And once you modify that habit, you begin implementing tiny, incremental tweaking to your day that over the long haul can add up to an enormous difference.

A proper understanding of our habits reveals that they can be changed. As author Charles Duhigg said, “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

Duhigg became interested in this principle more than a decade ago when he was a reporter for The New York Times in Iraq, where he met a major who had been given the assignment to stop riots from happening in a town named Kufa. What the major did was to go down and remove all the food vendors from the plazas. He discovered that by doing so, he broke up the patterns that would cause riots to emerge. Riots take six or seven hours to develop. What happens is a small group of troublemakers shows up and then spectators grow in number until the crowd gets so big that it somehow draws everyone into the violence. By removing the kebab sellers from the plazas, people went home when they got hungry since there were no more food sellers in the area. So, the crowd got thin. With this simple change of pattern, the major disrupted the riots that were happening. 

As you usher in 2018, pick up these principles from Duhigg, who has made sense of habits and how they impact our professional and personal lives:

 • The habit ring is made up of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. A cue is like a trigger for an automatic behavior to start, a routine is the behavior itself, and a reward is how your brain learns to remember this pattern for the future. How these elements are manipulated helps amend your habits, from crashing on the couch with a bag of chips to heading out to the park for a brisk walk. It’s deceptively simple: your alarm goes off in the morning (cue), you shower, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth (routine), and you get out the door on time and without forgetting anything (reward).

• Keystone habits help ignite a domino effect that affects all other aspects of your life. Exercising, sleeping well and making time for family togetherness at the dining table are fine examples of these practices. Willpower is the greatest keystone habit, and it can be taught. It can become habitual if you choose a certain behavior ahead of time, and follow that routine when a stress point arrives.

• To break a bad habit, keep the old cue and deliver the same reward, but insert a new routine. Any behavior can be changed if the cue and the reward stay the same. For example, every afternoon you get up from your desk to take a break, and you stop at the cafeteria to grab a coffee and a cookie. The reward is you feel good after doing so, but you gain weight in the process. You can break the habit by replacing the cookie with an apple. The cue and the reward stay the same. As such, habits cannot be completely eradicated, but they can be substituted. This principle has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, and other disorders or destructive behaviors.

• There is something powerful about groups and shared experiences. You might be unconvinced about your ability to change if you’re by yourself, but being with a group will convince you to become less skeptical. If you want to quit smoking, overdrinking, or overeating, join a group. Bad habits are not destiny, but you must resolve to change behaviors, do the difficult job to spot the cues and rewards that drive your habits, and find options. You must believe you can take control, and do it.

You cannot stop a habit, only override it with a stronger one. Small changes in the environment might not trigger your habits and if you can work out your cues, you might be able to stop the behavior you want to change. However, if you cannot change the trigger (or you cannot identify the trigger), you cannot often stop the habit. You can create a stronger habit that overrides the other habit, though, if you can connect the cue and reward, simply replacing the behavior with an alternative habit. You must be careful as you do this, because your underlying habit still exists, and you might still revert to it under times of stress.

How many times have you said to yourself that this is the year you will quit smoking or go back to more active exercising? Sean Covey stated, “You become what you repeatedly do,” but you can control what you repeatedly do — particularly the bad kind — from controlling your life.”

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Email bongosorio@gmail.com for comments. Thank you for communicating.

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