Habits are incredibly positive – without them you would not be dressed by lunch time or drive yourself to work. They are our autopilots steering us day-to-day through activities that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about.
This automation allows us to spare our cognitive muscles for those important decisions, plans and learning. Strong habits require very little, if any, of our conscious mind, allowing us to brush our teeth even if we’re half asleep!
Habits become our routines essential to our physical and mental health, productivity or work/balance life. However, we all have bad habits we ought to get rid of. Whether it’s procrastination, excessive screen time or overeating, we all have them and they are incredibly persistent!
The building blocks of routines
Habits are the building blocks for routines. Not only are routines a source of self-discipline, it can also be comforting—grounding us from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep at night.
Changing a bad habit and starting a new routine requires a lot of repetition. When you do something for the first time you have to concentrate and be conscious of your behaviour – there simply is no autopilot in the beginning.
For example, if you want to start loving the morning, you have to start the night before, reflect on the day that has passed, plan for the next day and get a good night’s sleep. Easier said than done right?
The habit loop
Author Charles Duhigg explores in The Power of Habit what he calls “The Habit Loop” – the three elements that governs any habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
Let’s explore his thinking.
The cue – these are the triggers that kick-start our habit and prompts our behaviour. They vary greatly – from location, time of day, to the people in that moment, a thought or our emotional state. For example: I’m bored.
The routine – this refers to the repeated behaviour that follows immediately after the cue. For example: I’m bored, so I will scroll through social media.
Although harmless at first, the repeated behaviour will lead to a habit.
The reward – The ultimate end-goal of any behaviour! Rewards reinforce the very reason why we have started the habit and routine in the first place, keeping our habit firmly in place, and on autopilot.
For example: I’m bored (the cue), so I will scroll through social media (the routine), and gain relief (the reward) from boredom.
Over time the specific behaviour associated in gaining the reward will eventually develop into a craving, even if the cue is not relevant anymore.
For example: If for a couple of nights, you were bored before bed time and every night you scrolled through social media, this behaviour will become your new habit. Eventually this habit will become a craving for social media or Netflix before going to bed, whether you are bored or not. Before you know it, you are on autopilot, with 2 to 3 hours of screen time every night.
Breaking your bad autopilot
1. Identify the routine. This is the easy part! It’s the bad habit you want to break.
2. Create new rewards. Habits start when our actions deliver rewards. So instead of grabbing your phone to provide entertainment and relief from boredom, why not read a book for 30 minutes or make a cup of herbal tea and watch the starlit sky before bed? The real reward would be me-time, calmness and a good night’s sleep.
It will take a few nights before your craving for your phone subsides but rest assured, your craving will disappear if you stop your phone-grabbing behaviour and replace it with positive alternatives.
3. Recognise the cues. What are the triggers prompting you to repeat your routine? Do you grab for your phone because you are bored, lonely or stressed? Without understanding your triggers, you will have difficulty breaking the cycle and finding new, healthy rewards to change your autopilot behaviour.
Switching your bad habit autopilot off is not an easy task. Don’t set yourself up for failure and think a night or two will break the habit. Commit to your new routine for a few months (remember it takes persistence and daily commitment to break a habit) and start healthy autopilots that truly reward.