Saturday, December 01, 2012

Shape Your Habits, Direct Your Life



Reading Charles Duhigg's The Power Of Habit really enlightened me and encouraged me on how one's personal habits can be changed and even harnessed for greater effectiveness in life.

We all know that everyone struggles with habits in various areas of our lives--that is, bad habits that call out to be managed and good habits that we always struggle to keep. Think new year resolutions.

First the bad news: habits, once formed, can't be gotten rid of because neural pathways are formed in our brains and even when we stop practising the habit, the pathways are still there, waiting to be activated.

The good news is that bad habits can be changed! And once we understand the anatomy of a habit, we can learn to form good habits! And it is through our daily habits that we can begin to build the life we desire.

So what's a habit? A habit is made of a loop which is first triggered by a cue such as mid-afternoon when you start to feel peckish. Once triggered, you begin to feel a craving and desire that begs to be satisfied. That's how we get into a habitual routine which serves to achieve a desired reward (e.g. hunger is satiated, feel good from endorphins etc.). And all this can happen without much forethought because our brains have been programmed through repeated habit cycles. This latter point can work both for us and against us.



Two examples:
- Cue: running shoes left next to the bed. Routine: run first thing in the morning. Reward: endorphine rush and a healthy breakfast.
- Cue: feeling sad. Routine: drink. Reward: forget the troubles.

Grasp this: The key ingredients to building instilling good habits are:
  • Belief - Whatever your habit is, if you believe that your habit can be changed, it makes a critical difference whether you can sustain and follow through your habit change. Whether your belief is based upon spirituality or otherwise, Duhigg cites research such as recovering alcoholics that demonstrates how crucial belief is.
  • Willpower - Don't give up! As we say in my church, keep on keeping on! Your breakthrough is round the corner! Another advice given to me by someone who recovered from depression by forcing himself to do what seemed really difficult, be ruthless. That said, willpower is like a muscle that can tire, such as after a long day of meetings and important decision making. That's why often we find it hard to kick ourselves to go for a run at the end of a tiring work day.
  • Identify keystone habits - A keystone habit is one that causes shifts in other areas of your life and other good habits begin to fall in place. Such as regular exercise which usually leads one to eat more healthily, smoke less and sleep more. Interestingly, this habit might not even seem related to what you're trying to achieve. Duhigg reported about the power of visualization through how Michael Phelps' coach got him to repeatedly watch a video tape of a perfect swim every night and every morning.
  • Understand moments of immense stress can trigger old habits - Duhigg mentions about people who do recover from alcoholism or drugs, but when a serious, personal crisis hits, these people lapse back into their destructive habits.

I simplify the practical habit-changing steps offered by Duhigg:

1) Identify the triggering habit cues. Think along five areas: time, location, emotional state, other people & the immediately preceding action.

2) Experiment with rewards to identify what is the gratification you're really after. It might not actually be the food you take during a tea break, but it could be company and a reprieve from work.

3) Think of a plan to change your routine according to the identified cue and reward. This step is essentially because otherwise you will feel compelled to lapse into your old habit. Separately, I've heard Dr. Robi Sonderegger explain that a temptation lasts about 7 minutes and that your planned distraction or new habit has to engage you emotionally if it is to be adopted effectively.

Read how Duhigg explains these steps.



And I'm absolutely inspired! I hope to apply this newfound wisdom not only to physical habits, but also to financial habits and mental habits. I also recognize that this is a journey and positive change won't take place place overnight. But bit by bit, if we keep at it, doing the right things and picking our bruised selves up when we do stumble, we can direct and transform our lives towards where we want to go.

Final note: Duhigg actually studies not just the habits of individuals but also in organizations and he goes into the realm of marketing strategies, corporate culture and practices. So you'll definitely find this book enlightening in many ways.

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