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David Squires

Getting Rid of All Your Bad Habits

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In 2006, a Duke University researcher did an experiment which showed that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Which means, essentially, nearly half of everything you do happens on autopilot. (Yeah, the little guy running the controls takes a lot of time off. Must be a union position.)

Certainly this would include a few positive behaviors. Plus many more neutral behaviors. And it would almost certainly include all of your least favorite, least beneficial behaviors.

According to Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, here’s how it works for someone who eats a chocolate bar at the office every day:

  • You have a craving. You love chocolate.
  • Your craving is activated by a cue. Every afternoon, when things slow down in your office a bit, you begin to dream about chocolate. You’re literally drooling.
  • You perform a routine. You get up, walk to the store, talk to a few people on the way, and buy a candy bar. You sit on a bench and eat it.
  • You get your reward. After the chocolate bar, you feel satisfied, full of energy, renewed.

By now, you’ve done this so many times that it is an automatic action. Changing this automatic action would require a huge expenditure of willpower. Willpower is something that’s in short supply. At least for a lot of us.

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Anyway, to change your habit while conserving your willpower, your goal is to automate a new, healthier habit.

  1. Start by studying the cue — schedule meetings for that slow period of the day, or do more exciting work. Does that help? Do you still have the urge even when you’re busy?
  2. Then test your assumptions about what the reward really is. Originally, you thought it was the chocolate. But maybe you’re deprived for calories and a healthier snack will restore your energy and make you feel renewed. But maybe it was really the chance to walk outside that gave you that renewed feeling. Or the discussions you had with other people. Or even the part when you sit on the bench under the big oak tree.

Experiment until you find a replacement. One key point the books makes is that you don’t kill habits, you only change them.

Examine your habits through this framework — cue, routine, and reward — and see how you can isolate and experiment your way to a lifestyle where you do more of what you should be doing, automatically.

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