Is there a part of your life that you wish you could change but you just can’t seem to make it happen? Perhaps you’ve been trying to quit smoking for years without success, or you continue to spend more than you earn even as you fall deeper and deeper into debt.
We all have sides to ourselves that we would like to change, but change is hard.
If you want to gain a greater understanding of why some bad habits can be so difficult to break, try reading The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
I first discovered The Power of Habit through an excerpt that was printed in the New York Times. I found it so fascinating that I immediately hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy. While it does get slightly dry at times as Duhigg explains the science behind habits, it is a fascinating read to anyone seeking to learn how to change their behavior patterns and unlearn bad habits.
Here are a few of the points that I found particularly interesting…
Most of Our Day is Ruled by Habits
It is amazing how many aspects of our lives are ruled by habit. Duhigg uses the example of a man backing out of his driveway to demonstrate how we chunk tasks together into a routine and then complete them almost without thinking.
I’ll use a slightly different example: my commute to work.
I recently moved to a new house, and my commute changed from about 12 miles of local roads to 44 miles of mostly highway driving. The first few times I drove the new route I felt extremely focused on what I was doing. I was familiar with the general route but I had yet to learn a lot of the details. For example, I wasn’t sure exactly how many miles it was to my exit, or when was the optimal time to shift from the left lane to the right. I had to really concentrate on what I was doing, keep an eye out for signs, etc.
But after just a few days I was able to drive to work without much effort at all. I no longer needed to watch for signs because I knew exactly where my exits were and how many miles I had to go before reaching them. I learned the traffic patterns and could recognize when I should be in the left lane and when I should shift to the right. My mind had formed a “commute to work” habit that automatically took over each morning.
Keystone Habits Are Life-Altering
Some habits are more important than others. Identifying and changing a keystone habit can have a remarkable change on our life. People often try to spend less money, lose weight, or exercise more but fail. Odds are, there is a keystone habit that is still causing the unwanted behavior. If you can identify that and find a reward for your new behavior your odds of success are much greater.
One example I can think of is Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball method for paying down debt. While the math would tell you that the most efficient way to pay down your debt is to focus all of your energy on the debt with the highest interest rate, but Ramsey insists on paying off the debt with the smallest balance even if the interest rate is lower.
His theory is that a quick victory will help you stay motivated and more likely to stick with the debt repayment program. I never really agreed with his thinking, but after reading The Power of Habit I believe the debt snowball method has merit.
Habits are formed when we experience a cue that triggers a routine, and when that routine is completed we feel a sense of reward. By making it a routine to pay down the debt with the smallest balance first, Ramsey’s method provides a much quicker reward and that will reinforce the habit and encourage you to continue paying down your debt.
Retailers Know More About Us Than We Think
The excerpt I read in the New York Times included a section that discussed the insane amount of personal information that retailers collect and use for marketing purposes.
The example used in the book is Target, which collects a list of all your purchases and matches them to your customer ID number which is also linked to your credit card or driver’s license. They can then use that information to figure out what kind of products you use and then send you coupons for those items so you come back to the store.
That’s not very surprising. If I buy Listerine mouthwash I would expect the store to know that and I wouldn’t be caught off guard by a Listerine coupon.
What is surprising is that Target was able to use the mountains of data from millions of customers and analyze it to figure out which of their customers were pregnant based solely on their purchases. In fact, one story in the book described an angry father of a teenage girl who confronted a Target manager because his daughter received coupons for baby items. He complained that Target was encouraging teenage pregnancy, but later apologized when it turned out his daughter was in fact pregnant.
It is important to mention that Target disputes much of Duhigg’s account, but wherever the exact truth lies it is obvious that companies know far more about us than we realize.
There is No Secret Formula for Change
Wouldn’t it be great if there was some secret switch we could flip to delete a destructive habit and reformat ourselves as we see fit?
Unfortunately, changing our behavior is not so simple. Not only are no two people the same, but no two habits are the same. A method that works for one person or habit will not work for everyone.
This is understandably frustrating.
The good news is that the final section of the book does provide instruction for identifying the cues and cravings that drive your habits. This can be difficult because cravings are often “obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway.”
Once you understand the often hidden causes behind a habit, you can begin to make real changes to your life and form newer and healthier habits.
We all have parts of our life that we wish we could change, but changing deeply ingrained habits is easier said than done.
The Power of Habit will help you identify destructive habits and the hidden cues that are behind them. There is no magic switch that will break bad habits for you. True change will take time and effort, but the book does provide a step-by-step action plan for identifying and reshaping your habits.
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