If there is one thing that knows no discrimination, it is a bad habit. Bad habits have a way of creeping into everybody’s life. Like a weed in the garden, you pull it out and it just grows right back. Indeed there is more to a bad habit than what is on the surface. In order to successfully break a bad habit you need to pull back the layers and fully understand the enemy.
There is an incredible story of an Army Major based in Baghdad who wanted to put an end to the violent riots that took place in the plaza. One would think that he sent his troopers in all gung-ho with gunfire. But the Major simply had the food vendors removed and astonishingly, the riots ceased.
When asked how on earth he knew removing the food vendors would put an end to the riots, his response was, “understanding habits.” The way the riots unfolded, the people would gather, grow in size, the kebab sellers would then show up, tensions would inevitably build among the crowd and then rocks and bottles would be thrown. By removing one simple aspect- no food meant the crowd went home to eat- he would break the cycle and end the riots.
The cycle of a bad habit can be broken down into three stages. One of the leading experts in the study of habit formation, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, puts the three stages into these terms:
1. The Cue.
This is the trigger that initiates the habit; that makes the behavior automatically unfold. It could be a repeated event, a location, a time of day, an emotional response, or meeting other people. It is the spark that leads to the routine.
2. The Routine.
The routine is the actual behavior. Duhigg gives a great personal example- at about 3:30pm every single day he would get a craving for a cookie. He would go up to the fourteenth floor to the caferia, buy a cookie and then eat and talk to co-workers. That process was the routine.
3. The Reward.
The reward is the outcome for which your cravings or your behaviors are seeking to fulfill. The ‘reward’ for a chronic drinker is to get drunk, eating the donut for the sugar hit, skipping the meal to lose a few pounds.
Now that we have deconstructed the habit, here are 3 steps how to break it.
1. Reverse Engineer.
Start at the end and work backward- dissect the nature of your reward. This takes digging deep and being honest. Is having a cigarette really about getting nicotine, or is it really about distracting you or relieving you from boredom. For Duhigg, he discovered the real reason for getting the cookie was not that he loved sugar, but simply that he enjoyed chatting to his coworkers. He found that he was able to do that without having to buy a cookie!
There may be a multitude of possible reasons why you are stuck in that bad habit. This step focuses on figuring out what your triggers are. If you run into a person at a specific time and they trigger off negative emotions in you, once you identify that you will be able to steer around that particular trigger. If that ice-cream truck passes by your house at a certain time of day, you will know when to make yourself busy.
3. Replace Or Redeem.
The reward you are seeking may not be necessarily bad- there is nothing wrong with having a snack before you go to bed. The key here is to redeem or replace your routine. Rather than snacking on those Reeces Pieces, instead have some dark chocolate. If you chew on your nails when you are nervous, carry some chewing gum with you. If you are chronically late for work because you make your coffee in the morning, get prepared the night before.
Whatever the bad habit is that you are struggling with, deconstruct it. Look at the three stages- tackle and overcome the habit in pieces. In no time you will be celebrating that you are no longer a slave to your bad habit!