Did you know that the average person makes almost 700 decisions per day and that about 40-45% of those decisions are so habitual that they’re not really decisions at all? This is an important fact for any of us who wants to change a behavior—like learning to listen more, avoiding unhealthy foods, exercising more, learning to delegate—because most of the behaviors we want to change are habits.
Knowing a behavior is habitual is important information because as M.I.T. researcher Ann Graybiel has shown, our brains tend to go into a pattern that mimics sleep once the habitual behavior starts. As Charles Duhigg popularized in his book The Power of Habit, the habit begins with a cue, which is a trigger to start the habitual behavior and ends with a reward, which helps the brain remember the habitual behavior pattern for the future. This creates a habit loop of cue, (habitual) behavior and reward.
Interestingly, Graybiel’s research shows that while our brains tend to go to sleep during the behavioral part of the habit loop, it is stimulated by both the cue and the reward. Duhigg says that the way to change a habit is to pay attention to the cue and the reward of a habit you want to change, the parts of the habit loop where your brain is stimulated, and tweak them in some way so you become more conscious of what you’re doing and therefore more able to control your behavior.
I had a client recently who thought she was too scattered at work—starting things and not getting them finished—and it was important to her to learn how to be more focused on her top priorities. When we analyzed her chief stumbling block to greater focus, the culprit was easy to identify—e-mail. She had a habit of keeping her phone next to her bed and checking her e-mail first thing in the morning. This set her up to focus on other people’s emergencies rather than her own priorities.
Our solution was to create a new habit loop. Since her phone was her cue to start her e-mail habit, she decided to put the phone in another room. She wanted to replace the e-mail habit with at least five minutes of meditation . To do this, she set an alarm clock (rather than her phone) and decided to light a scented candle first thing in the morning. This is her cue to get on her yoga mat (already in her bedroom) and begin her meditation. Her reward when she finishes—a cup of her favorite tea.
Usually when we try to change a behavior, we focus only on the behavior rather than the stimulus that sets it off and the reward for doing it. Duhigg says we will be much more successful if we focus on and plan ahead for the entire habit loop. Give it a shot. I think you’ll be glad you did.