Sometime ago I read an interesting book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In this article, I present my learning from this highly acclaimed book. I however do want to make it clear that the content here represents my views on the subject and does not necessarily fully reflect the research findings of the illustrious author of the book.
We are dictated by our habits. Our habits are what we are. Our identity is linked to our habits. If you practice music every day then people will identify you as a musician. If you play chess passionately then your identity will be of a chess player. If you are going to the mosque five times a day then you will be identified as a religious person. People identify you with what you are seen doing habitually.
It is important that we first clarify in our own mind, who we are. What identity would you like to have? What are you passionate about doing? And once this identity with which you are happy is discovered, you can wholeheartedly pursue that identity (habit) for greater success and fulfillment.
Based on Charles Duhigg’s work, habits are a result of four simple steps.
- Cue 2. Craving. 3. Response. 4. Reward. This four step pattern is the backbone of every habit and our brain runs through these steps in the same sequence every time.
The first step is the cue. The cue triggers the brain to initiate a behaviour. This cue reminds our brain of the reward at the end of the cycle. You are passing by a restaurant (cue) and your brain tells you of the reward; (a delicious biryani). This creates the craving.
Craving is the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of desire or craving, we have no reason to act. So now you are craving that delicious biryani which leads you to the third step- response.
Your response is the actual habit you perform. Here your response would be to enter the restaurant and devour the biryani and finally this response delivers the result which in this instance would be your gastronomic delight.
There is however a caveat. Whether you respond or not depends on how motivated you are and how much constraint there is associated with your response. For example, if you have already had lunch then there is not enough of a motivation for you to have the biryani or if you are not carrying enough money in your pocket then there is a strong constraint for you to enter the restaurant.
The reward is the end goal of every habit. The cue is about thinking of the reward; the craving is about desiring the reward; the response is about acting to get the reward.
If the reward is satisfying then the cycle keeps repeating itself and this is a habit. Every time you pass by that restaurant, you go in and gratify your culinary yearning. (Assuming you have the hunger and the money). If however the reward is not satisfying, you break away from the habit. Say you go into the same restaurant and the chef has changed and the new chef’s cooking is not to your taste. After a few disappointing visits to the restaurant, your habit of eating biryani at that restaurant will be broken.
Good habits can be formed by satisfying rewards. A survey has shown that 92 percent of people said that they habitually exercised because it made them “feel good”- they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. Exercising regularly also gives these people an identity of a “fit person”. This identity is what greatly motivates them to continue their regular workout routine. Research has also shown that people are far more likely to develop a good habit if it is based on an identity rather than an outcome. So in this case, while the person may have taken up exercising with the objective of losing weight, the probability of the workout becoming a habit is much more likely if the said person identifies himself/herself as someone who is fit rather than if he/she continued to exercise with the objective of losing weight. This is logical because if exercising does not give the expected weight loss then there would be no reason to continue exercising even though it is good for health. Conversely, if the expected weight loss is achieved then the purpose has been served and therefore no point in continuing to exercise.
Whether it is a drug addiction or gambling obsession, the fact is that bad habits do provide some type of relief. Therefore it is very difficult to eliminate them. The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one and create an identity for yourself which resonates with the good habit. For example, if you want to quit smoking just a commitment to not smoke may not be enough; especially during high stress moments when the craving is maximum. Replacing the habit of smoking with a good habit like a cardio workout or yoga pranayama (breathing exercise) is likely to be more effective. As mentioned earlier, your identity is also linked to your habit. Identify yourself as a non smoker. If someone offers you a cigarette, instead of saying “I am trying to quit smoking” say “I don’t smoke”. Your identity of a health buff will also prevent you from smoking.
Habits are the small decisions we make and the actions we perform every day. A Duke University research says that our habits account for almost half of our every day behaviours. Our life is essentially dictated by our habits. How healthy or unhealthy we are. How happy or unhappy we are. How successful or unsuccessful we are. In one way or another, our habits play a big role in all of these matters.
If our habits determine who we are then our entire life’s pursuit should be to make constant changes to our habits. It is not about a single earth shaking life defining habit; it is about a life long pursuit of strengthening good habits through regular practice and eliminating bad habits by replacing them with good habits.
Drawing a parable from the ancient Greek sorites paradox, does a single 5 taka coin make a person rich? Would ten such coins make the person rich? But what if you add another and another and another? You have to admit that at some point the said person does become rich. The paradox is in establishing at what point does the person become rich? Can one tiny change of habit transform your life? It is unlikely. But what if you made another? And another? And another? At some point your life would be transformed and you too may end up mulling over another sorites paradox of when it happened.
“Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” Octavia Butler