How to Build (Or Break!) A Habit

When it comes to trying to create a new habit (or overwrite one that isn’t serving you), the best resource I’ve ever found, hands down, is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. I highly recommend that you pick up the book for yourself, but let me give you a brief little run-down of what I see as the book’s key take-aways.

The Neuroanatomy of A Habit

A habit has three parts:

  1. The trigger
  2. The behavior
  3. The reward.

If you are looking to build a new healthy habit, you must do more than just will yourself to start the behavior; you need to set yourself up for success by brainstorming the trigger that will stimulate you to do the behavior, and the reward which will keep you doing it—at least until you pass the 21-60 days that neuroscience tells us are required to build a new habit. (After that, the reward will be intrinsic—which is why habits are so hard to break!)

For instance, a trigger might be a time of day: every day at such-and-such time, you will do a certain thing. It can be a visual trigger: a sticky note on your bathroom mirror, for example. Or it can be an auditory trigger: an alert on your phone, perhaps. It can be waking up in the morning, or leaving work for home, or lunchtime.

The reward needs to be something external, and it should very quickly follow the behavior (or sometimes it can occur at the same time. Caution: if your goal is to exercise, try not to make the reward an ice cream sundae!) The reward for exercise might be listening to podcasts or audiobooks or a favorite playlist that you never let yourself listen to otherwise, or don’t have time for, as an example.

Breaking a Bad Habit

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to break a bad habit, you can most easily do so by substituting a different behavior, but keep the trigger and the reward the same. For instance, if you’re trying to curb a habit of drinking too much alcohol, and the trigger is a particular time of the day, presumably the reward you get is a sense of relaxation. Brainstorm what else might give you that same sense of relaxation, and list those. (You might try yoga, diffusing essential oils, a cup of tea, etc.) Every day, when the trigger time hits, determine that you will substitute one of the alternative behaviors on your list. If after you try the new behavior, you still crave the alcohol, go ahead and have some—but create a game plan of something else you will try instead when the next craving hits. Continue this process until you find a replacement behavior which provides the same reward. Then stick with that!

Willpower is a finite resource. Set yourself up for success by doing a little legwork on the front end. It will make it much easier to stick with your resolutions!

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