There are tons of articles out there about the habits of successful people. These articles point out that successful people have positive habits like getting up early, or networking regularly, or making a daily to-do list. There are countless habits you can adopt to increase your chances of becoming successful – exercise regularly, read daily, study every morning. Surprisingly though, the most important part is not what habits you wish to adopt. The crucial part is knowing how habits are formed.
It’s Not What. It’s How.
In other words, learning the science of forming and changing habits is more important than choosing the actual behaviors you want to adopt.
The truth is, most people fail at changing their habits. Most smokers don’t quit, two-thirds of the people who join gyms stop going, and students don’t stick to their study schedules. This is because we are often working against our own brains. But, if we use the science of habits, we can increase our chances of actually changing those habits, and sticking to them.
OK, so how?
First we need to know that habits are made of a three step loop. Habits involve a trigger or cue, which prompts a behavior, that provides a reward.
Tigger. Behavior. Reward.
You sit down to watch TV, which prompts you to engage in the behavior of eating a snack, which results in a tasty reward.
TV. Snack. Tasty.
Think about all of the automatic things you do that have a trigger or cue. Do you have to study at school because when you are home, you automatically flip on the TV to relax and don’t seem to get much studying done?
Home. TV. Relaxation.
Do you go out every Friday night to have fun with your friends and unwind?
Friday. Go out. Fun.
Do you go to the gym after class because you’ve been sitting all day and you need to get up and move to feel better?
Sitting. Gym. Feel better.
When you start to recognize your behaviors as habit loops, you’ll find that there are plenty of them.
My brain made me do it.
Next, recognize that what keeps the habit in place, is that your brain craves the reward in the habit loop. Your brain doesn’t really care about the activity. It wants the reward: Tasty. Relax. Fun. Feel better.
What’s more, every time you experience the trigger, the cerebral desire to perform the behavior is even stronger and therefore harder to resist because your brain knows the reward is coming. If you are in the habit of having something sweet after eating dinner, or making yourself a morning coffee, think about how strongly your brain is craving that reward. Test it even. Try not to have dessert or coffee. The willpower might work a few times, but beyond that, your brain will want that old habit back in place ASAP because it comes with the reward.
The other really important thing we need to recognize is that by the time we are adults, it is very difficult to create new habits from scratch, and even more difficult to destroy old ones we want to change. This is why most adults have such a hard time starting exercise programs, or quitting smoking. The brain craves the reward, and the habit is hard to break.
Make the change
So, if you want to alter your habits, follow these three steps.
- Identify the habit you want to add that will help you achieve success. For example, you want to make a habit of studying for 3 hours every night.
- Identify the existing habit you will target to make that change. Let’s say you spend most nights from 8 pm to 11 pm watching TV because the trigger is sitting down on the couch at 8 o’clock. The behavior is flopping down on the couch and turning on the TV, and the reward is relaxation. Couch. TV. Relaxation. You know these three hours should be spent studying instead, so it is the habit you would like to change.
- Change the trigger or the behavior. Your brain will always crave the reward: relaxation. So you need to change either the trigger or the behavior. So, change the trigger, the behavior or both, but keep the reward intact.
Here’s how it might work: You could remove the trigger altogether by heading to the library every night at 8pm. You could turn the couch so that it doesn’t face the TV – that one gets a little tricky when you have roommates, or a small living room. You could put the remote control out of reach, but keep your books and notes within arm’s length.
Changing the trigger may help the brain not crave the reward. Or you can try changing the behavior so that it produces the same reward. To duplicate the relaxation reward you normally get from watching TV, you could start meditating every night at 8 o’clock.
If meditating is not your thing, just plug in any behavior that you find relaxing: 15 minutes of reading, making a cup of tea or taking a walk. The point is, give your brain the relaxation it craves right at 8 o’clock so that you don’t waste 3 hours watching TV to finally achieve that relaxed state. Soon your brain will regard the new activity as the source of the reward. Once this happens, studying will come more naturally in the evening.
You can manipulate your habit loops for all kinds of changes you want to make to increase your success. Which one are you going to change first?
For a little more, check out this animated video featuring Mr. Duhigg in an interview about habits.