Management Managing Yourself

FEELING HOPELESS? CHANGE YOUR HABITS

September 21, 2016

If you are just a little bit like me I am pretty sure you have your own episodes when you are very well aware you should change something in your life – whether it is loosing a few pounds, getting a promotion at work, spending more time with your family or getting in control of your money; but when you eventually embark on the journey it actually feels overwhelming. Although you do try very hard, that six-pack image you have been visualising in your head just seems out of reach and the joy of having another cigarette is much more alluring than the health of your lungs. Old, well-embedded habits take back control.

Take another example. You always have your phone on you when you leave to work every morning but you never remember putting it in your purse in the first place. You drove to the supermarket to buy a pint of milk but you cannot recall the journey at all. It is because you are so used to drive that you do not have to think about it. Your ‘auto-pilot’ takes over. 

Over the years, I tried to better my diet, read more books, exercise more, take better care of my finances. Some of the years I was pretty successful – waist line tended to stay stable. As long as my will power was strong enough to turn down another piece of mouth-watering chocolate cookie, I knew was heading into the right direction.  But there were years when nothing seemed to work. When my willpower declined everything seemed to collapse. 

Willpower is not a solution.

We tend to think that willpower is the solution. Some even believed that willpower is a skill you can learn. “If you have the skill to make an omelet on Wednesday, you will still know how to make it on Friday” writes Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit” . But then if the willpower was a skill why on some days I had no problem going to the gym after work while on the next day it seemed the most dreadful activity? It turns “Willpower is not just a skill. It is a muscle and it gets tired as it works harder, so there is less power left over the other things” says Mark Muraven, psychologist at University at Albany. “If you want to do something that requires willpower – like going for a run after work – you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day. If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing e-mails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home” Muraven explains. Willpower will certainly help you to start implementing change but it is a limited resource in itself. And you do not want to run out of petrol on a motorway…

Few facts about habits.

If you are seriously thinking about change I recommend you a great book: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. It will not only provide with an intellectual experience but it will also give you framework for changing your habits. Full of useful tips it will be a great addition to your home library. For those of you who would rather read the summary than the whole book, here are my highlights:

1. Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for new ways to save effort. Without habits, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.

2. The brain’s dependence on automatic routines can be dangerous. Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit.

3. The habits are extremely powerful but surprisingly delicate.

4. It is possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about decision-making. 

5. The craving is what powers the habit.

6. Habit Structure consists of the cue, routine and reward. All these three components are fuelled by cravings. 

 

habit-structure-2

So how to successfully change bad habits? 

I am sure theory is something you may be less interested in but, believe me, once you know which components to observe you will be more likely to transform bad habits into good ones. It is believed that it is impossible to eliminate habits but it is certainly possible to change them. Duhigg research suggest you should keep the same cue and reward but change the routine. It is called The Golden Rule of Habit Change:

the-golden-rule-of-habit-change

Self-awareness homework.

Well right but what’s next? Where should I start? Start with the self-inventory. Start observing yourself on daily basis and try to establish patterns. The behaviour you want to change will be quite obvious. On the contrary, you may need to work a bit harder on the cue and/or on the reward. It will not happen overnight but the better you understand why you something takes place the better prepared you will be to attack it and change. Here’s the framework:

A) Identify The Routine – drinking too much coffee, being a coach potato, drinking alcohol, smoking, etc

B) Experiment With Rewards – imagine you have a habit of going to cafeteria and buying a cookie every afternoon – the habit which you wish to change. You have already established the Routine: buying a cookie. The next step is to play with the rewards. It is trying to answer ‘Why’ you buy a cookie every afternoon. And it may not be so obvious at the beginning. So experiment. On Day 1 – instead of walking to the cafeteria, walk around the office and come back to your desk without eating anything. Day 2 – go to cafeteria, but have a doughnut instead of a cookie and eat it at your desk instead of inside the cafeteria. Day 3 – go to the cafeteria, buy an apple and eat it while chatting to your friends. Day 4 – try a cup of coffee instead of cookie and chat to your friend for few minutes. In the end of day 4 you should have an idea what exactly do you crave, which reward are you looking for. Is it the sugar rush you feel after eating the cookie, or a break from work? Or it is the excuse to socialise? Each day after your replacement routine happens, set an alarm for 15 min and when it rings ask yourself: Do I still feel the urge for that cookie? It is Day 2 again and you just had a doughnut instead of cookie. 15 min had passed but you still feel the urge to get up and go to cafeteria, then your habit is not motivated by a sugar craving. The entire experiment will able you to establish what is that you actually craving. 

C) Isolate The Cue – Duhigg points out that almost all cues fit into one of five categories: Location, Time, Emotional State, Other people or immediately preceding action. So for the next 4 days jot down the answers to the following questions:

– Where are you?

– What time is it?

– What is your emotional state?

– Who else is around?

– What actions preceded the urge?

At the and of Day 4 you will be able to spot the pattern – one the answers which remained the same throughout the last four days. As mentioned above, cue can be anything from a certain time of the day, a place, a company of particular people, etc.

D) Have A Plan – “When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD”. Eventually you want to have a new routine figured out beforehand so that when you see cue you can replace the old routine with a new one. And be patient, change may not happen overnight.

habit-homework

I recently established another good habit which turns to work quite well: I read one book a month. How did I do it? Here’s the breakdown: Cue = as soon as I get on the train every morning on my way to work, Routine = I take a book from my purse and start reading. Reward = new ideas which I can implement at work/life. All this because I am Craving for Motivation. 

Not so long ago, (when I was not pregnant) I would get up on Saturday morning at 7:00am, run 7 km to the gym, attend 2 hours of workout group classes, spend 20 min in sauna and swim 20 swimming pool lengths. Crazy if you consider it happened during the weekend and I am not really an early bird type of person. However, considering the reward: a nice breakfast and an afternoon nap I did not seem to have a problem with a 7:00 am alarm ring on Saturdays. All this because I was craving for a relief after all week of work. I would not stick to the above routine on any other day than Saturday simply because the reward: a nice (not rushed) breakfast and a nap afterwards were not available on any other day than Saturday.

For those of you who would like to read more about the science of habit, “The Power of Habit” is a must-read.

book power of habit

I hope the book will serves you well.

What are the habits you wish to change the most? 

Agata founded Prospectus to share inspiration and her managerial experience as a way of encouraging others not to be afraid to take executive decisions in both their professional and private life. Launched in December 2015, Prospectus is a growing collection of conversations around management, leadership, personal finance & professional attire.

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6 Comments

  • Reply Marta Zielinska January 30, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for this post, I heard about this book before but I didn’t actually read it. It’s nice that your shared a bit of the book that is actually actionable right away! I might try and think through some of my habits more thoroughly and see why I keep failing at sticking with them 🙂

    • Reply Agata Lemos January 31, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      The book itself is very well written so I am sure you will enjoy it anyway. I have shared only a little bit of the first part of the book which speaks about habits of individuals, the second talks about habits of companies and third – habits of society. I could not recommend it more!

  • Reply Emilia Lis September 24, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Great subject to think it over. I’m sure I have a few habits I need and I want to change but it’s so difficult to find them just like that. It seems to be so easy to do what you suggest – changing our habit step by step, finding another options.
    P.S I have another tip to read 1 book per month – let you know soon. First I have to check if it works;)

    • Reply Agata Lemos September 24, 2016 at 11:47 pm

      Well, it really depends as the entire process of changing habits can be messy. The framework does not suggest for a moment that change is easy, all it does is to create some structure which you can then apply to help you change. The most important is self-inventory and establishing cues and rewards (eventually cravings). It takes time and note taking.

      Plus, above all you must believe that you can change the habit. If you do not you set yourself for a failure.

      Take the example of my reading: I said the moment I sat down on the train I take the book from my bag. Recently, there were no seats available on the train and I have not grabbed the book. It does indeed illustrates habits are powerful but very delicate (vulenrable).

      Good luck with the changes you working at!

  • Reply Agata Lemos September 21, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Hi Daria,

    Thank you for the great question!
    If you did identify you crave for sugar, there is another question to ask: do you crave for sugar because you simply hungry or you crave for sugar because you want the bust of energy? If first is the answer then your solution: having a meal is great!

    Running hours in the gym however may work for someone who craves the high sugar gives. In this case it would be replaced by increased level of endorphins after the run.

  • Reply Daria September 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks for a great food for thought Agata!
    What would you suggest to do in order to change a habit of eating that nasty cookie given you had identified that you crave for sugar? Running hours in a gym before having it? I think what worked for me was having a filling meal before the usual cookie time.

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