Understanding is changing - 4. Steps to habit change

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Understanding is changing - 4. Steps to habit change

The number one reason why we stick with bad habits is that we do not understand what is really driving us. We eat something because we think we are hungry, although we really might be just frustrated by a call from our boss. We smoke a cigarette not because we need the cigarette but enjoy the company with our colleagues. As long as we do not fully understand what initiates the behavior we will not be able to change it fundamentally.

Charles Duhigg describes very detailed in this book the four steps on how to achieve a habit change. He notes that there is not one single recipe you can follow to change everything. Habit change is something very individual as it is deeply rooted in our needs and desires. The ingredients you need to make a change are a bit (self-)reflection and monitoring, a bit of experimentation and some creativity. 


Step 1 – Reflection: Identify the ritual

You might notice that you feel very tired in the morning recently. When you think about it you realize that you tend to watch TV longer hours at night, which makes you go to bed a lot later, which then makes you tired in the morning. This is the ritual or the behavior you want to change to get enough sleep and be refreshed for the day. You then start to monitor the circumstance a lot more. Is it every night? Or only occasionally? What are accompanying factors at that nights? You might even start a journal. After a few incidents, you realize that you tend to show this pattern on days where you get home from the office late.


Step 2 – Experiment: Find your rewards

Now you need to develop a hypothesis about reasons why you have developed this routine. One could be for example that you are still in “beast-mode” from work even when you are home. Then you need some time to relax and get sleepy.  To test this hypothesis you could start going to the gym on that nights. This might help you to get rid of all the energy and stress from the work day and really make a clear cut between work and home. However, this does not seem to help. Now you go back and have to search for another possible pattern and develop a new hypothesis.


Step 3 – Reflection: Isolate the cue

Make sure you do have eliminated all other possible reasons that might explain your urge or behavior. The problem with going to the gym might be that you actually get home even later on days where you are already late. Or might be tired in the mornings due to a heavy workout. This example makes clear that it might not be that easy to isolate the cue and reveal the causal chain that influences your behavior. If you personally fail to see a pattern, talk to friends or your partner about it. Sometimes an outside perspective may help to either develop a new hypothesis or to rule out accompanying factors.


Step 4 - Creativity: Develop an alternative routine

You realize that the nights when you come home late are also nights when you have more often fought with your partner. To avoid contact with your partner and distract yourself from the conflicts you have started to watch tv. To test this hypothesis, you establish a rule that both of you note down situations and things that upset you that occur that night and plan to talk about them in the mornings. This actually seems to help.

What becomes clear with this example is that habits – even a simple habit like watching TV and getting late to bed – may have a more complex roots than expected. Do not give up too early and try to get to the core. Then it will be easier to change your behavior sustainably.


Some suggestions for further reading

Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change. Random House.

Published on Saturday 16th October 2021

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