Building Resilience: The Amazing Power of Habits

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steadily gains in strength. At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel. ~ American theologian Tryon Edwards (1809-1894)

Most of the choices we make each day feel like well-considered decisions. In reality, ingrained habits determine much of what we think, speak and do.

Research has shown that the average person has approximately 40,000 thoughts per day, but 95% are the same ones experienced the day before. Other studies support the notion that 40% of our daily actions arebased on habits and routines, not newly formed decisions. The good news is that habits were learned and we can choose new habit to learn.

Our habits–what we say, eat and do, and how we organize our thoughts and work routines– have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.

In the last two decades, scientists have begun to understand how habits are formed, how they work and, more importantly, how we can change them. As New York Times staff writer Charles Duhigg reveals in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012):

Before Pepsodent entered the market in the early 20th century, only 7% of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade later, the number had jumped to 65%, thanks to Claude Hopkins’ legendary advertising campaigns. The tooth brushinghabit was firmly established.

Procter & Gamble turned a spray called Febreze into a billion-dollar brand by taking advantage of consumers’ habitual urge to “breathe happy” and eliminate odors.

Alcoholics Anonymous reforms lives and enables people to live free from powerful addictions by redirecting self-destructive habits into constructive routines.

By changing one small keystone habit (like safety precautions or tracking and measuring),individuals and companies can influence everyday routines, leading to widespread results.

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly seeking ways to conserve energy. It looks for a cue that becomes the trigger for a habitual (unconscious) response. We are then rewarded with a blast of the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine.

The process is a three-step physiological loop:

  • A trigger event or cue occurs.
  • There’s an automatic (unconscious) response (physical, mental or emotional).
  • A reward helps the brain decide that this loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, the habit loop becomes increasingly automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation emerges.

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings form so gradually that we’re not even aware they exist. We’re often blind to their influence because they have become unconscious.

Habits Are Neural Connections

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the brain’s structures–a huge advantage because we don’t have to relearn things we haven’t done in a while, such as riding a bike, speaking a foreign language or driving to work.

But your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. Even after you’ve conquered a bad habit, it’s always lurking in the back of your mind. One cigarette can reignite a smoking habit after years of abstinence.

This is why it’s so hard to create newroutines. Unless you deliberately fight an old habit by substituting a new thought or routine, the pattern will unfold automatically. When you learn how the habit loop works, you’ll find it easier to take control of your behaviors.

The good news is that habits aren’t destiny. They can be ignored, changed or replaced. When we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower old drives and behaviors (thereby taking control of the habit loop), we can force our bad habits into the background.

Cue => Routine => Reward

A cue triggers both a routine and a reward (i.e., a rush of endorphins or sense of accomplishment from engaging in a positive habit).

If, for example, you’re tired or bored, you may habitually eat a snack. If you want to avoid the calories and improve your overall health, you can choose to exercise instead. Both solutions relieve boredom and chemically reward the brain, but one is the smarter option.

To change a habit, identify the underlying craving or trigger; then, reward the brain with a more healthful behavior.

The Golden Rule of Changing Habits

You cannot extinguish a bad habit; you must learn to modify or replace it. Here’s the formula for change:

  1. Use the same cue.
  2. Provide aphysiological or emotional reward.
  3. Change the routine up and be accountable to someone.

Some researchers have found that desire and belief can help transform a consciously modified habit loop into a permanent behavior. In other words, you must want to change and believe you can do it.

Your degree of desire will influence the amount of persistence and discipline you apply.Practice and accountability is critical. Some people must stick to their new routine for at least six months to create a new habit.

Which habit do you want to start changing this week?

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