There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?“
The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day, and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.
What Are Habits?
A habit is a learned pattern of behaviour that is repeated so often that it becomes automatic. Certain habits can be helpful, such as the habit of brushing your teeth before going to bed. Other habits can be harmful, such as the habit of eating junk food everyday.
Habits are at the heart of your successes and failures in life. Your life is essentially the sum of your habits. The root of adhering to your highest ideals — exercising regularly, becoming more productive, sleeping better, reading more, cultivating the discipline necessary for building successful ventures — is in understanding the science and psychology of how habits work.
How Habits Work
In the best–selling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg explains that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called “The Habit Loop,” which is a 3 part process. This 3 part process involves a cue, routine and a reward. The cue is the trigger that initiates the behaviour. The routine is the behaviour itself, the action you take. The reward is the benefit you gain from doing the behaviour.
- You receive a notification on your phone that something has happened on your social media application (cue).
- You take out your phone and open the social media application (routine).
- You start scrolling in the social media application to see the update (reward). It could be that someone liked one of the photos you posted.
To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your habit loops. Once you have this understanding you gain the power to create new habits and to break any bad habits you currently have.
Creating A Good Habit
Understanding the habit loop shows you that you can create any new habits in your life. Lets say you want to create a new good habit. That new good habit is the routine in the habit loop. If you want to create a new habit, you need to first look at the cue. Every habit has a trigger. What time will this habit occur? Where will you be? Who else will be around? What will you have just finished? What emotion do you think you will be feeling at that time? You don’t need to answer all these questions to create your new habit. Only one of the questions is needed to become a cue.
Once you have your cue the next thing you look at is your reward. What reward will you give yourself at the end of the routine? Do you actually enjoy the reward? After a few days of going through the motion of creating the new habit you should ask yourself if you crave this reward each time you are exposed to the cue? This is very important because if you do not crave the reward then it is not powerful enough to create a new habit. You will need to choose a new reward in that case. You will eventually want to get to a point where you crave the intrinsic reward of the habit (how it makes you feel) more than the extrinsic reward (what you give yourself as a treat). This is how powerful habits are built.
Breaking A Bad Habit
Understanding the habit loop shows you that habits are malleable throughout your entire life. It is never too late to break a bad habit. If you want to change a bad habit you need to diagnose the 3 parts of the habit loop. That bad habit you want to change is the routine in the habit loop. Similar to creating a new habit you first look at the cue. When you feel the urge for your bad habit, ask yourself these questions; What time is it? Where are you? Who else is around? What did you just do? What emotion are you feeling? The answer to one of those questions is the cue. Look for the one that stays the same every time you feel the urge.
Once you have your cue the next thing you look at is your reward. What craving do you think your habit is satisfying? This is the key part of breaking out of a bad habit. If you can clearly identify the craving your bad habit is satisfying then you can substitute that bad habit with a good habit that satisfies the same craving. You may need to experiment a little here until you find something new that satisfies the urge.
Creating And Breaking Habits In Your Life
You now have a good understanding on how habits work through the habit loop, how to create a new habit and how to break out of a habit. The next step is to actually apply what you have learned in your life. To build those new good habits and break out of the bad ones. You are in a better position now than someone without the knowledge but you may still struggle with habit change. Here are a few extra tips to increase your chances of success.
Write a plan. Studies show that the easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan. So get your pen and paper, write down the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) for the habit you want to develop and post the plan where you will see it everyday.
Do one thing at a time. Focus on one habit at a time. Trying to change multiple habits at the same time can be overwhelming and you will end up giving up on all of them. It’s very hard to make changes that stick, especially if you’re trying to focus on more than one. Once you get the one habit right then you can move on to the next one.
Get accountability buddies. One of the best ways to change your habit environment is to set up accountability. Join an accountability group with friends or other trusted individuals. Report daily. Ask them to not let you fail and slip away. The accountability will help keep you on track when all the other things fail.
With those extra tips and the knowledge you now posses on how habits work, hopefully that puts you one step closer to taking control of your life. What you repeatedly do ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. Those are habits. Aristotle famously said,
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
Hopefully next time you are swimming along, you will be the fish swimming in the opposite direction that asks “How’s the water?“