What if you didn’t have to be the victim of your old, destructive habits? What if changing those habits was simply a matter of knowing how to do so? In other words, what if you could systematically eliminate old habits and create better ones?
That would change your life. Wouldn’t it?
Well, according to Charles Duhigg, you can. And if I’m being honest, I totally believe him.
In fact, I’ve been using these 3 principles to change eating and exercise habits over the last few weeks. And for the first time in the last 6 months, I actually hit my goal of going to the gym 5 days a week — not just once, but two weeks in a row.
You can too. Here’s the three things you need to know to change any habit.
“There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”
1. Replacing old habits is easier than eliminating them.
To understand why habits are easier to change then destroy, you first need to understand how habits work.
It all starts with a cue — something that tells you it’s time to engage in a common habit.
Let’s take a bad habit as an example. Snacking too much, for instance.
Before you start snacking, you experience a cue. That cue could be boredom, stress, or even certain times of day.
And once that cue roles around, your body will automatically engage in the corresponding habit: snacking. After all, that’s what a habit is — something we do automatically, without thinking about it.
But how has that cue developed and why is it telling you snack? Well, at some point in your life, you were bored, so you got out the Doritos and munched for a bit. The next day, you did the same thing. And the next day as well. After a while, a habit was born.
And it was born at the hand of a cue-routine-reward cycle.
Something cues you to engage in the habit, and after you do, you get a reward. Which is exactly why habits stick around so stubbornly. They reward us, and for that reason, we enjoy them.
But that’s also why eliminating an old habit is practically impossible. The cue and reward are difficult to change. The routine, on the other hand, is flexible.
Charles Duhigg calls this the golden rule of habit change:
“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”
Again, he says,
“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
To change an old habit, then, you need to come up with a new routine to fall between the old cue and reward. For example, eating when you’re bored might become exercising when you’re bored. Or drinking alcohol when you’re stressed might become going for a short drive when you’re stressed.
Leave the cue. Leave the reward. Change the routine.
And you can do this with organizational habits as well as personal habits.
After all, organizational habits are simply the habits of a group of people instead of an individual person. Things like safety, standard of excellence, and work-expectation within a company.
Just remember, whenever you want to get rid of an old habit — personal or organizational — you must replace it with something else.
“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: The habit loop.”
2. Encourage change by leveraging keystone habits.
You now know how to change habits, but let me show you how you can change your life with habit-adjustment. The fastest way to change multiple habits within your life or an organization is to change a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one that, when it changes, has a ripple effect into all other habits of the person’s life.
You’ve experienced this before. Maybe you started exercising or eating healthier or spending more time with your family. Eventually, that one alteration impacted all of your other daily behaviors. You feel better about yourself so you have the confidence to take your business to the next level or start that project you’ve been procrastinating or read books more often.
Whatever the case, the keystone habit slowly and magically changed you life… one habit at a time.
And the even better part about keystone habits is that the only intentional change is with the keystone habit, itself. The life-change that follows is simply a result of the initial shift.
In other words, you only need to work to alter one habit.
In the words of Charles Duhigg,
“Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
For your personal life, exercise is perhaps the most powerful keystone habit. But others include things like cooking at home, eating at the dinner table, and limiting TV time.
Examine your own life and choose one keystone habit to change. Then, life-change will follow.
“As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”
3. Treat willpower as the limited resource it is.
Even though you now understand how habits develop and how you can change them, change is still hard.
But why? Why is change so difficult?
In one study that Charles Duhigg mentions in his book, participants were asked to solve an unsolvable puzzle after they had already undergone other willpower-draining exercises that day — like being forced to choose radishes over cookies.
Another group was allowed to eat the cookies.
The participants didn’t know that the puzzle they were given afterward was unsolvable and they didn’t know they were being tested for their willpower.
Participants who had not exerted willpower in resisting the cookies spent far longer trying to solve the unsolvable puzzle than participants who resisted cookies and settled for radishes.
This means two things.
- Willpower is a finite resource. The more you use it, the less you have.
- Willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice.
In other words, when you’re working to change a habit, make sure you save enough willpower throughout the day to push yourself in the right direction.
If you have a stress-filled day at work, it’s less likely that you’ll exercise in the evening. Similarly, if you’re fighting with your spouse, you probably won’t eat a healthy meal for dinner.
Our willpower gets exhausted the more we use it. I’ll allow Charles Duhigg to say it in his own words:
“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day.”