Habits are powerful mechanisms in our routines. They are at the core of the actions we take and therefore the results we achieve. With time, they can help you incorporate more positive actions into your day.
According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, habits emerged because the brain tries to save as much effort as possible to conserve energy. They are so useful to us because the brain can automate our actions into a routine. As examples, exercising, eating healthy food, cleaning our inboxes, and keeping our desks clean can become a routine so that we don’t have to think about doing them each time.
Therefore, with habits, we have room in our minds that can be used to solve non-routine problems. We also have more energy to think creatively and grow.
Not all our habits are good, however. Some bad habits, such as procrastination or running late, may have become ingrained in us from an early age. These tend to stay around and may be very difficult to change. The best tactic is to avoid them in the first place, and if that’s not possible because we already have developed the bad habit, then it is useful to understand where they come from so that we can substitute them with better habits.
Avoid Bad Habits Before They Start
In the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack (public library), Charlie Munger introduces the notion of the Inconsistency-Avoidance Tendency. This tendency is one of the reasons why bad habits tend to be so persistent, as it is a psychological bias whereby we have a propensity to want to appear coherent in how we act.
Furthermore, to save space in our brains, we try not to change. We’ll respond and act consistently in the long-term. Munger argues that our habits are kept in place for a long time, even when we know they are bad because of this tendency.
Bad habits, such as wasting time watching television or being immersed in social media, can be reinforced over time. It’s much better to apply Ben Franklin’s advice, a great source of inspiration to Charlie Munger: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
If you start seeing yourself falling into a bad habit, find a way to remove it as soon as possible. As an example, I have fallen into a bad habit myself. I’ve grown too accustomed to the use of my cell phone, and I find myself instinctively reaching for it, even when I don’t need it at all.
I use my phone to work, but I have noticed a pattern that starts when I reach to check if I have any work-related messages. Whenever I open WhatsApp to communicate with others, I open other apps, such as Instagram and LinkedIn, which begins the cycle. I recognize that it is turning into a habit that needs to be cut short.
Substitute Bad Habits with Good Ones
The good news is that bad habits are not the only ones that persist – good habits do, too. Once we form a good habit, we will be able to maintain it using this same tendency. So, if there is a bad habit you want to eliminate, try replacing it with a good one.
Duhigg explains how we acquire habits. They are made of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. First, the cue tells the mind that it is time to begin the habit. The cue might be a notification that you have received on your phone or leaving your sneakers next to your bed to indicate it is time to get up and jog. The routine is the actions that follow. Lastly, there is a reward, which is what helps the brain determine whether an action is worth taking and whether a habit should be formed.
The habit depends on your brain craving the reward that is going to come. If running is your habit, the brain will come to expect the reward of the endorphins that will be released once you start moving. As it is practiced, the habit becomes automatic.
Duhigg shows that you can never eliminate bad habits; you can transform them. Therefore, using the same cue and the same reward, you can change the routine. In the book, Duhigg gives an example of someone who wants to stop snacking at work. He explains that the person might not be snacking for hunger but rather because he or she needs a break. Therefore, once the person has identified the cue, instead of reaching for a snack, he or she can choose to get up and take a short walk or go over to a colleague’s desk for a visit.
Our Results Come from Our Habits
We become what we practice. If we have a bad habit, these are probably dragging us down. Good habits, on the other hand, can support us in ways that become automatic.
Use them as a tool: good habits are the foundation of your results.