It’s Almost Impossible to Change without Knowing This

One of the most difficult things for me to do is change my behavior. As a leadership coach, I’ve found this to be a common theme for most people – it can seem impossible to change what we’ve always done. Is there a way to get rid of bad habits we’ve acquired over the years and replace them with the kind of habits we really want in life that help us become the people we want to be?

There is. You just have to discover the trick.

A Duke University researcher found that more than 40% of our actions aren’t actual decisions – they’re habits. Things we are hardly aware of and have little control over, they are on autopilot. This is research from a fascinating book I’m reading, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. What would our lives look like if we could reclaim a good portion of that 40% we are unaware of, and channel it into habits we want that bring us closer to the things we really care about?

Here’s what you need to know:

Students and Lead Mentor in Hong Kong
Photo Credit: GFES via Flickr

(1) You may not remember the experience that formed the habit or habits, but once it is solidified in your brain, they influence how we act without even realizing it. This is why people can’t stop smoking, drinking or binge eating – whatever the behavior may be – they feel powerless to change.

(2) Understand the “habit loop” – cue, routine, reward. Chances are that every single one of us own products that used the science behind the habit loop to trick us into buying them. We have a closet full of them. A great example is toothpaste. The minty, tingly taste in our mouth makes us believe our teeth are crystal clean, but that taste has nothing to do with it. Toothpaste could be odorless and tasteless and work just as well. So why is it there? Because we need the ‘reward’ of feeling like our teeth are clean, that creates a craving, and that creates a habit which keeps you buying the product.

(3) Learn the right human psychology. Claude Hopkins made millions of dollars on the toothpaste Pepsodent. Not because it tasted great, but because he understood how human beings work and followed the habit loop. He said this was based on two simple rules: First, find a simple and obvious cue and second, clearly define the rewards. He created ads that talked about the tooth film on our teeth when you rub your tongue against them. He said that is what makes your teeth off-color and invites decay (these ‘cues’ weren’t even really true, but that didn’t matter). Want pretty, clean teeth? Brush with Pepsodent (routine) and the film will be gone when you run your tongue back across your teeth. This will be evident by the minty taste (reward). When that habit loop was set, it was all over except the counting of hundred dollar bills. Before Pepsodent appeared, only 7% of Americans had a tube of toothpaste. A decade later the number jumped to 65%.

(4) Identify the cues and rewards and you can change the routine. A girl who was a chronic nail biter was sent to therapy to identify the cue. She would feel tension in her fingers, then rub her fingers along her nails looking for a hang nail (cue). She always found one and would then proceed to chomp all of her fingers (routine) until she felt a sense of completeness with smooth nails (reward). To change her habit, the therapist had her carry an index card to check every time she felt the cue – tension. When she recognized it and felt the tension she was taught a ‘competing response’ – to put her hands in her pockets or under her legs. Then she was to search for something to provide a quick physical stimulation such as rubbing her arm or hitting her knuckles on a desk. The cues and rewards stayed the same but the routine changed. A week later, she had only bitten her nails 3x. She rewarded herself with a manicure. 30 days later the nail-biting habit was completely gone.

(5) Use this new found knowledge and the habit loop to create new routines to help you create a better you. For example, I’m using it to create better exercise patterns in my life. My default cue is to get bored. I go to my phone to scroll (routines) and that gives me a reward (a brief break from the monotony). Now when I get bored (cue) I immediately exercise by taking a walk or doing pushups and situps (routine) and I’ve increased my (reward) because I get the break but also a shot of dopamine which makes me feel better. I’ve created a much better habit.

I’m also utilizing the same habit loop to create other ‘better’ habits in my life. How I start my day, keeping my vision and strategic goals in front of me on a regular basis, and how I motivate myself.

Use this skill to create a new you – a better version of yourself. By being more aware of what you are doing and what habits you possess, you can begin to take more control of your life and strategically place the habits you want in your life that strengthen who you want to be.

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