Change your habits, change your life.
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times.
It’s easier said than done.
Creating habits involved a straightforward loop:
Trigger >> Action >> Reward
Repeat this a few times = Habit
We do this all the time. Responding to the pings, picking up our phones mindlessly when we are bored, or confused, or stuck in articulating our thoughts.
Contrary to the myth, it doesn’t even take 21 days. How long did it take you to become addicted to your phone?
The reason habit change is hard is that habit change requires creating habits and breaking habits.
Breaking habits is not quite as simple as creating habits.
You might wonder:
How hard can it be? Just break the loop at the trigger, action, or reward and you’ll break the habit.
Here are 3 reasons why that doesn’t work so easily in practice.
1: Habits are not conscious.
Habits are automatic responses to a trigger.
That’s what makes them habits: we do them automatically, without thinking about them.
That’s the point of creating habits in the first place, and the difficulty of breaking them: you can’t change what you can’t see.
When it comes to creating change, awareness is more than half the battle. You can’t change something you’re unaware of.
2: Habits have multiple triggers.
Once we start to shine a light onto our habits, we often find that a behavior we want to stop doing doesn’t have only one trigger, it likely has multiple triggers. Sometimes at the same time.
Triggers can include:
- emotional states
- physical states
- other actions or behaviors
- energy levels
- community and peers
Here’s how this might look in practice.
Let’s say you want to break a habit of eating ice cream.
What triggers you to eat ice cream?
Emotional: You might eat ice cream because you’re bored, depressed, angry, lonely, or happy.
Physical: Your mouth wants the feel of silky smooth ice cream.
Other actions or behaviors: Maybe you link ice cream to a specific activity, or eating specific foods.
Environment: You might link ice cream to being in a certain place, like the beach. Or a hot day.
Situational: You may have a habit of eating ice cream on a certain day of the week, or on the way home from a specific place you go to regularly, because you pass the ice cream place.
Energy levels: maybe you reach for ice cream when your energy needs a boost.
Peers/Community: Maybe you only eat ice cream when you’re with your kids or with friends who are eating ice cream.
Other: Perhaps you eat ice cream only on certain days of the week.
Here’s where it gets complex:
Very often there are multiple triggers involved.
Untangling the triggers takes time; sometimes you don’t see the real trigger until the surface triggers are out of the way. And sometimes the triggers might be at odds.
3: Your habits serve you.
Part of the habit loop is the reward. If you didn’t get something from the behavior, you wouldn’t do it.
Here’s the challenge: even the habits that “don’t serve you” serve you.
You get something from them, and even if you don’t like what you receive, it is serving you in some capacity.
Even something that makes you angry serves you, if you use that anger constructively.
So there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to break the habit.
Just like triggers, we often get different rewards from the same behavior.
To break a habit you need to cultivate awareness of the habit itself and all the factors that trigger the behavior. But most crucially, you must identify how it is serving you.
You can’t change what you can’t see. And you won’t change what you want to keep.
to change a habit
first cultivate awareness
of how it serves you