Master Your Habits in Four Easy Steps

by ParentCo. October 06, 2017

A lady wearing earphone, lying in bed

I picked up the book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg with the specific intent of curing my morning “snooze” habit.

You see, I waste 30 to 40 minutes each morning torturing my husband through the synthetic sunlight and multiple rounds of birdsong emanating from a fancy light-up alarm. It is a habit beyond reason. Plus, I could really use the extra time to work on lengthy morning negotiations with our toddler (“I will give you one pretzel if you get in the car right now,” etc. etc.)

Thanks to "The Power of Habit" I did cure my morning snoozing, but more on that later.

The more I read, the less important snoozing became as there were much bigger takeaways to be had. Here are a few.

1 | What is a habit? Cue, routine, reward

The first revelation came with Duhigg’s simple breakdown of what constitutes a habit. I began thinking this was a powerful and complex mystery, and came out knowing that it is a simple, changeable, three-step loop: cue, routine, reward, and the loop is driven by a craving.

The clearest example from the book is smoking. “When a smoker sees a cue – say, a pack of Marlboros – her brain starts anticipating a hit of nicotine.” That would be the craving. The routine is smoking. The reward is the nicotine rush.

Our brains use habits like tools. We have reptile-like cores that perform actions without any conscious thought. This allows us to complete complex processes, like backing a car out of the driveway, while our conscious minds are elsewhere. In many ways, this is helpful, but in modern society, with temptations like smoking, snacking on unhealthy foods, and watching too much Netflix, it can hurt us as well.

2 | Create a habit: learn to crave exercise (or anything else you hate)

When I stop to think about it, I have long list of habits I’d like to create. Those include exercising, eating better, writing regularly, and cooking at home. Conveniently, the book uses exercise to explain how habits are created.

Duhigg sites a 2002 study from New Mexico State University that tracked 266 people who exercised three or more times per week. He analyzes the specific “craving” these participants had cultivated in order to drive their habit loop. In one group, 92 percent of participants craved the “feel good” endorphins a workout provides. In another group, 67 percent craved a sense of accomplishment that came with tracking their performance.

Anyone can use this information to exercise more, according to Duhigg. “Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.”

3 | Change a habit: swap the bad for the good

The key to eradicating a bad habit, like snoozing repeatedly, is not stopping altogether (which can be nearly impossible thanks to those reptile-like brain cells), it’s replacing just one element in the habit loop: the routine.

“If you can use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit,” says Duhigg.

I examined my bad habit in detail: My cue is the phone alarm. My routine is to hit snooze. My reward is lingering in that delicious, relaxing, semi-awake state, where I’m still warm in my bed and just conscious enough to appreciate it.

I needed a new routine, something that would allow me to stay warm and in bed, without hitting snooze and falling back to sleep.

I’d been wanting to try the paid version of the meditation app, Calm. It offers a new 10-minute guided meditation each day. This was my answer.

The app took the thinking out of it for me. I could open it instead of hitting snooze.

My new pattern: My alarm goes off. I open Calm, pop in headphones and start the session right away. I get to stay warm in bed for 10 minutes.

Going smoothly from groggy to mindful works well for me. Meditating in the morning is much easier than trying to meditate at night. As a bonus, I still get 20 to 30 minutes to spend talking my toddler into putting shoes on! Thank you, Mr. Duhigg.

4 | Keystone habits: get your whole family in on the action

What surprised me most was learning that both individuals and companies use a concept called the “keystone habit” to kick off widespread improvement. Keystone habits are habits that seem small and offer small wins. Their magic lies in convincing people that bigger achievements are within reach and this causes a chain reaction of improvement.

Again, Duhigg uses exercise as an example, saying, “Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work.”

Family dinner is another well known keystone habit. “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.” Such a small daily ritual does all that.

Besides creating the momentum of a consistent “small win,” keystone habits can help children exercise willpower like they would a muscle. “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important,” says Todd Heatherton, a researcher from Dartmouth who has worked on willpower studies and is quoted in the book.

“It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or soccer star,” Heatherton says. “When you learn to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you build self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”

I never thought about structured activities for kids in this way before. I also snoozed so much on weekend mornings that the thought of rushing out to kids’ activities has always been quickly curtailed. However, while I’m riding high on the “small win” of morning meditation, I plan to tackle family dinners and an activity or two for the kids next.



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