Using Habits to Make Life Better

According to a study at Duke University, 40% of our actions are out of habit, not actual decisions. If all your habits are good, this makes life much easier. But, if you are like me and have some bad habits, this statistic helps explain why changing the Habit Loop is so difficult. This is what the Habit Loop looks like.

Creating good habits can make your life easier
The Habit Loop

You receive a cue, you perform the routine, and you get a reward. As you repeat, you develop a craving for the reward. This just reinforces the habit. I see little chocolate wrappers every morning that remind me of my late night craving.

Habits develop naturally as we repeat a behavior. Even a complex task can be learned within a week. We then perform the routine and neither the mental activity nor memory parts of the brain have to work hard. In general, habits make our life much easier. They allow the brain to not have to think about dealing with a certain situation but just take care of it. This gives our brain some rest time or allows us to focus on other things that need real brain power.

Driving a car is an example. We do not have to think about every little action or non-action we take. If we did, even a short trip could be mentally exhausting.

Researchers have learned that we get addicted to the rewards in the Habit Loop. When a habit becomes stronger and stronger, the brain can anticipate the reward and even give us the ‘happy’ feeling before we perform the routine action. That’s why researchers suggest focusing on changing the routine while maintaining the reward to break a Habit Loop.

For me, that tiny piece of chocolate at the end of the night was a great reward for having maintained my diet all day. But soon I went from 1 to 2 to 3 and then 4 pieces almost every night. They tasted great, but suddenly the scale was moving in the wrong direction. How could 4 small pieces of chocolate ruin everything? Well, turns out they added up to 10% of my daily caloric intake. Now my routine is a few savory olives. I still get the hungry cue late at night but now get two rewards – a tasty snack and healthier weight.

Of course, you can also change cues and/or rewards to change habits. If you give yourself an alternative reward for a revised routine to a specific cue, you get a new habit with a desired result. Or, you can take action so that a cue related to a bad habit appears less frequently in your life.

Changing habits at work can be a challenge. Your company runs mostly on unofficial rules. Simply inventing new values or mottos isn’t enough – you have to change the individual habits of people. As a manager, you need to identify the cues, routines and rewards. Figure out which is easiest to change to get new habits. Then give people the necessary tools and guidance and lead by example.

I do not procrastinate much, but inevitably it seems like there are a few items that will end up on my ‘procrastination list’ for days or weeks. My “habit” is to use the main part of the day to crank through dozens of items on my task list instead of 1 on my procrastination list. To make things worse, if I have any available time at the end of the day, I’ll look at the next day’s task list and take care of several items instead of tackling one procrastination item.

To change this habit, I set a new cue to trigger a new routine. My phone alarm now goes off a 4 pm every day. I then spend at least 20 minutes on my procrastination list. It turns out the feeling of accomplishment as I tackle something I’ve been avoiding is even more rewarding than completing items on today’s or tomorrow’s regular task list.

As a manager, when I see my staff struggling with procrastination or not making sufficient progress on large initiatives, we discuss how to solve these problems. It always comes down to time allocation. We need to change habits in order to make progress. For many of them, first thing in the morning is their best time to work on projects. To make the progress I desire, I adapt my behavior so they can work uninterrupted during the time that works best for them.

When you learn you are acting out of habit 40% of the time, you realize there is a huge opportunity to change your life by simply changing some of your habits. Maybe it won’t be simple, but the rewards can be enormous.


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