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How to break habits - three techniques

Updated on November 2, 2014

Personal testimonial (and why me)

I quit drinking almost six years ago, and for the first full year (and maybe a little longer), I struggled with usurping those old habits I had formed and replacing them with new, much healthier, more productive ones. As a result, I am now running two businesses, writing dozens of articles each month, and working to pay of my mortgage in 2 more years. I'd like to share you the headache of trying to figure out how to make this sort of huge life-changing event work in your favor, and how to change your habits permanently, for the better. Let's get started!

The three stages of the habit

I recently was fortunate enough to read "The Power of Habit", so the content is still pretty fresh in my mind. The main thing that stuck out to me, though, upon finishing this book, was:

Man, I wish I'd had this six years ago!

The author starts by taking a good, long look at what makes a habit a habit. Why do we constantly do the things that we do every day? If you drive to your work every day, which route do you take? Is it the most efficient route? What time do you get up to leave? Do you think about how to brush your teeth, or whether you should brush your teeth before you shower?

It turns out that we don't really use the reasoning portion of our brains for these habits, and habits drive our daily existence to an immense degree. Having this knowledge, people studying the brain have been able to recognize that habits consist of three distinct phases:

  • the trigger
  • the routine
  • the reward

Simply knowing this is power in and of itself, but being able to change the routine (the portion of the habit we'd almost definitely like to change) needs to be accomplished via a trial and error (essentially, scientific) method. You need to figure out what your trigger is for the habit in order to know when it's going to happen, and you need to know what the reward is so that you can determine how else to get the reward, other than via the destructive habit itself. Very insightful stuff, especially since Duhigg (the author) shows how companies also have habits of their own, and they follow essentially the same rules.

Habits consist of three distinct phases: the trigger, the routine, and the reward?

The Trigger

The trigger is just what makes you do whatever it is you'd like to stop doing. For me, that was, obviously, drinking. Contrary to what many might think, not all compulsive drinkers are alcoholics- that is, someone who is physically addicted to alcohol. For me, my trigger wasn't "the shakes" or anything like that, but rather inactivity and boredom. I found that if I went home and had a specific project to work on at night, I could actually start to replace the habit of drinking with something else I was specifically working on. For me, this was either watching videos or reading books about physics. As it turns out, I really enjoyed this, and it actually became a small part of my inspiration to write articles.

Charles Duhigg on habits

The routine and the reward

Similarly, the routine involves inner study to determine what, exactly, it is that you do. I've found that by having an extremely rigid routine, I am able to fill my day with a predictable (but far from boring) schedule. This means that I don't really ever slow down, except for during those times I've allotted for slowing down, and those are equally important.

The reward for drinking turned out to be a combination of three things, all of which I had to work to replace:

  • A nice buzz
  • A lack of social inhibition
  • Entertainment

The buzz wasn't what I missed the most, although it was certainly fun. There are lots of things in life that feel good, from eating to sex to sleeping in, and if you think about it, you can find your personal reward that works best for you. The social inhibition one, though- there's really no other way to deal with this other than to go out and just talk to people. I am fortunate enough to teach jiu jitsu for a living, so I am able to talk to dozens of people every day. This helps a great deal with overcoming any inhibitions, because I don't know all of these people well. As for the entertainment thing, the routine largely took care of this. It was a vicious cycle, too- as I got better at keeping my day full, I got more and more done, but then created more and more work for myself. I am seldom bored any more, because I know there's always so much more I can do!

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