Habits have the the power (both positive and negative) to determine success or failure. Good habits are essential for making life easier and more productive.
How Habits are Formed
Understanding how habits are formed will give you the power to create or change your behavior. The following list will help you create a habit:
- Identify a goal that will help you repeat a necessary behavior on a daily basis. It could be an a more immediate goal, or it could be a goal that is accomplished over time (like scripture study).
- Decide which routine is best. (For example, if you are trying to get in the habit of studying your scriptures, the routine could be reading the Book of Mormon every morning.)
- Finally, create a trigger to prompt the action by setting an alarm on your phone or by placing your scriptures next to your bed. If you repeat this pattern long enough, it will become a habit.
Your brain is creating habits all the time, so you may have developed a few negative habits along the way that could prevent you from achieving your goals. There are two elements to memory. One is how well you remember something (how well it is learned). The other is how easy it is to recall. Habits operate on the same principle. Habits are routines that you have learned so well that they are permanently stored in your memory waiting for the right trigger or cue to activate it.
Since habits are permanently stored in memory, when you change a habit what you are really doing is rewiring your brain to use the same triggers and rewards from the old habit to cue a new routine. If you have a growth mindset, when you do challenging tasks, your intelligence grows because you strengthen and form new neural pathways. Neural pathways are also strengthened by repeated use. Thus, habits are essentially the heavily used neural pathways in your brain that form your thought patterns and behaviors. The following video illustrates how you can rewire the neural pathways in your brain to trigger the habits you want.
Changing habits is sometimes not easy. Consider the habit of eating unhealthily. If you have this habit, then you have probably set some goals to help you do better. You may have even placed reminders on the fridge to eat more healthy foods. All of these are positive steps in the right direction but you may find yourself continually fighting against the habit to eat junk food, despite all the reminders and goals you have set.
How then are you going to stop your habit of eating food that is unhealthy? Having a strong desire will help, but you also need to identify the trigger (or cue) for this behavior. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg recommends four steps to change a habit.
- Identify the routine.
- Experiment with rewards.
- Isolate the cue.
- Have a plan.
In the case of eating poorly, the routine is easy to identify—you are eating the wrong foods. The next step is to understand the relationship between the reward and the routine (eating unhealthy food). Through experimentation, you can try using different rewards to isolate your craving. When you identify the reward and its routine, you can change the habit by establishing a different routine (for example, socializing with friends, exercising, or reading a book). The activity itself is not important—you are just experimenting with rewards to identify your craving. If you were craving socialization, then visiting with friends should work. If you are looking to relax for awhile, then reading a good book can help you avoid the bad habit of eating unhealthily.
Duhigg suggests using an old trick to identify patterns by writing down the first three words that pop into your head after you do the activity. Then set an alarm for fifteen minutes and ask yourself: Do you still feel the urge to eat food that is unhealthy? Writing down the words has two benefits. First, it forces you to become aware of what you were thinking and feeling. Second, it will trigger your memory when your alarm goes off. By waiting fifteen minutes you can verify that the craving has been satisfied, if on the other hand you’re still feeling the urge to eat bad food, you should keep experimenting with rewards.
Duhigg’s third step—identifying cues, can be difficult because there are many potential triggers. Is it boredom? Stress? Time of day? Being alone? Socializing with friends? Watching TV? Being near food?
What about the reward? Is it the sugar you like? Socialization? Or escaping from stress?
Fortunately, science has shown that almost all triggers fall into one of the following five categories:
- Emotional state
- Other people
- Immediately preceding action
By writing down the answer to each of these prompts every time you have a craving, you can begin to identify a pattern. Consider the following example:
|Category||1st Urge||2nd Urge||3rd Urge||4th Urge|
|Where are you?||At work||In my bedroom||On the bus||In the kitchen|
|What time is it?||4:12 p.m.||11:37 p.m.||10:03 a.m.||6:58 a.m.|
|What's your emotional state?||Bored||Tired||Stressed||Happy|
|Who else is around?||No one||No one||No one||No one|
|What action preceded the urge?||Read email||Got in bed||Sat down||Finished exercising|
In this example, it is obvious that the trigger for eating junk food is being alone. Habits like this usually have multiple triggers but by using this process you can identify your triggers for bad habits.
Now that you have identified the routine, reward, and the trigger, you can make a plan to replace the routine with the good behavior you want. Please note: you might be able to avoid triggers, but you cannot eliminate them completely. So the best approach is to change the routine so that the same trigger will cue the new routine (habit) and provide the same reward. In our example, if the reward your body is craving is socialization, then visiting with friends could be the new routine. To associate socializing with your trigger of being alone, you can create a plan to call a friend by setting an alarm to remind when you know you will be alone. Bad habits can be difficult to overcome, so it is important to have several plans in case one is not successful.
It’s not possible to make every goal and item on a goal hierarchy into a habit, but there are some habits that lead to a lot of good changes. These habits are called keystone habits. Keystone habits are the small and simple things by which great things are brought to pass (Alma 37:6).
It may not seem possible to achieve better results through simple keystone habits. Sometimes it seems like only great changes in habits will lead to desired results. This is often the case with people who are trying to lose weight. They radically change everything at once, such as going to the gym, adopting a new diet, taking the stairs, and getting counseling. After a while, however, when they lose their enthusiasm for the new routines, they become exhausted from the difficult schedules and they begin their old habits again.
Research has shown that simple keystone habits, such as journaling, are more effective in enacting change than these multifaceted radical approaches. Duhigg recounts a 2009 study from the National Institutes of Health to illustrate the power of keystone habits. In the study, people were asked to write down what they ate for one day each week. As the participants started to make a habit of food journaling, they began to change certain aspects of their lives automatically. The participants noticed patterns of when they ate snacks and started to keep healthy food around. They also started to plan more meals. The participants in the study who kept food journals lost twice as much weight as people who tried more radical approaches even though the researchers had not given them any instructions about weight loss.
Establishing keystone habits is one of the most powerful ways to change your life for good. Up to this point, you might have reviewed and prioritized a list of activities, created a goal hierarchy, and were about to launch into a radical change to your daily routines. This approach, however, could have left you exhausted and feeling deflated, like the radical dieters, when you discovered that it would be too much to change at one time.
Establishing keystone habits is one of the most powerful ways to change your life for good. Instead of making many big changes in your life at one time, review your goal hierarchy and priorities and identify one or two keystone habits that will lead to your desired results. Examples of keystone activities that you might choose include reading your scriptures, or having daily prayer. Tracking how you use your time and money are also good keystone habits because they make you more aware of your stewardship and encourage good behavior. Exercising is a wonderful keystone habit that brings along a whole host of good habits.
Ponder and Record
As you review the material above consider the following questions and record some of your thoughts in your Learning Journal:
- What habits do you currently have that support your goals? What habits do you have that are inhibiting your goals?
- What keystone habit should you choose to more effectively use your time and be a better steward?
- How has the Lord blessed you through small and simple things?