A brief introduction to How Habits Work
From the best selling book The Power of Habit:
It’s a known fact that Bad habits worsen depression and anxiety. They make what is bad, worse. They make change allude us and then delude us. The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid recovery and change, right? If only it were that easy.
It’s not that formulas don’t exist, we have plenty at our mental health clinic. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits nor healing depression and anxiety. There are thousands.
Individuals and habits are all different, and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different than curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. What’s more, each person’s habits are driven by different cravings.
As a result, the book about how bad habits worsen depression and anxiety doesn’t contain one prescription. Rather, I hoped to deliver something else: a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change. Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur and have the bad habits worsen depression and anxiety. Each chapter in this book explains a different aspect of why habits exist and how they function. The depression treatment framework described in this appendix is an attempt to distill, in a very basic way, the tactics that researchers have found for diagnosing and shaping habits within our own lives. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive. This is merely a practical guide, a place to start. And paired with deeper lessons from this book’s chapters, it’s a manual for where to go next. Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.
Identify the routine
Experiment with rewards
Isolate the cue
Have a plan
STEP ONE: IDENTIFY THE ROUTINE
The MIT researchers in Chapter One discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.
To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.
As an example, let’s say you have a bad habit, like I did when I started researching this book, of going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. Let’s say this habit has caused you to gain a few pounds. In fact, let’s say this habit has caused you to gain exactly 8 pounds, and that your wife has made a few pointed comments. You’ve tried to force yourself to stop – you even went so far as to put a post-it on your computer that reads “NO MORE COOKIES”.
But every afternoon you manage to ignore that note, get up, wander towards the cafeteria, buy a cookie and, while chatting with colleagues around the cash register, eat it. It feels good, and then it feels bad. Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist. Tomorrow will be different.
But tomorrow, the habit takes hold again.
How do you start diagnosing and then changing this behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine. In this cookie scenario – as with most habits – the routine is the most obvious aspect: it’s the behavior you want to change. Your routine is that you get up from your desk in the afternoon, walk to the cafeteria, buy a chocolate chip cookie and eat it while chatting with friends. So that’s what you put into the loop:
Next, some less obvious questions: What’s the cue for this routine? Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task?
And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes from that blast of sugar?
To figure this out and how Bad habits worsen depression and anxiety, you’ll need to do a little experimentation.
STEP TWO: EXPERIMENT WITH REWARDS
Rewards are powerful because they satisfying cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. When the Febreze marketing team discovered that consumers desired a fresh scent at the end of a cleaning ritual, for example, they had found a craving that no one even knew existed. It was hiding in plain sight. Most cravings are like this: obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway.
To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. This might take a few days, or a week, or longer. During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change – think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.
On the first day of your emotions experiments, when you feel the urge to go to the cafeteria and buy a cookie, adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward. For instance, instead of walking to the cafeteria, go outside, walk around the block, and then go back to your desk without eating anything. The next day, go to the cafeteria and buy a do-nut, or a candy bar, and eat it at your desk. The next day, go to the cafeteria, buy an apple, and eat it while chatting with your friends. Then, try a cup of coffee. Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, walk over to your friend’s office and gossip for a few minutes and go back to your desk.
You get the idea. What you choose to do instead of buying a cookie isn’t important. The point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine. Are you craving the cookie itself, or a break from work? If it’s the cookie, is it because you’re hungry? (In which case the apple should work just as well.) Or is it because you want the burst of energy the cookie provides? (And so the coffee should suffice.) Or, are you wandering up to the cafeteria as an excuse to socialize, and the cookie is just a convenient excuse? (If so, walking to someone’s desk and gossiping for a few minutes should satisfy the urge.)
As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you get back to your desk. They can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling, or just the first three words that pop into your head.
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