People have been drilling the three weeks that habit forming takes into your brain for probably as long as you've known that bad habits exist. You know the timeline. But how to you actually change the habit itself? It's not as hard as you might think.
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How Habits Work
In his book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," Charles Duhigg tells the true story of a man who lost the ability to retain any memory, yet somehow was still able to go for walks and come home, despite not knowing where his home was or what it looked like.
That’s how habits work. Once established, they function like your lungs or your heart, without any thought process required. If you take a moment to fully process what that means, you'll begin to see why it is so incredibly hard to modify your habits. They have become as natural as breathing.
1. By recognizing that it's a subconscious habit, and by searching it out, you bring that process to the forefront of your mind, making it easier to identify and adjust.
2. Realizing that habits are a part of the more primitive area of our brain, which we have less control over, might help you finally let go of all of the times you've tried to change your lifestyle and habits and failed. It isn't your fault. It’s because it became instinct.
So now that you know why it happens, how do you change it?
In case any of you don't quite remember, a keystone is the stone that forms the top middle of an arch, much as a corner stone supports an entire foundation. The keystone holds all of the components of an arch in place. I won't bore you with the architectural wonders of arches, but if you have some spare time, you should look it up. They're pretty cool.
Back to the topic at hand: if a keystone is what holds up the archway, then it stands to reason that a keystone habit would be one habit that holds up many others. The trick to changing all of those bad habits you've wanted to get rid of, and the trick to building the habits you wish you had, is simple: change that keystone.
Perhaps that phrasing surprises you. Maybe you were expecting me to tell you to remove it, so that all of the other habits would come crashing down. While that would work, habits are a complex beast and simply abandoning them isn't always an option. Luckily, our good friend Charles Duhigg has a way around that.
Duhigg presents habits like this: cue -> routine -> reward. While anyone can try to just stop at the cue and resist whatever the subsequent routine is, this causes a problem for us as our bodies begin to crave the reward associated with it. Therein lies the secret. By changing just one part of the cycle, you change the habit. But which part?
Replacing the Cake
You're probably familiar with the phrase "have your cake and eat it too." While it might have multiple connotations, we can take it for now at face value. Having a habit is like seeing the cake and deciding you can have it; the reward being that it tastes good. The secret to changing a habit is replacing the cake. The cue is still there: we can't erase the metaphorical cake from the face of the planet, and we don't want to deprive you of your reward, as that could cause some sort of very unhealthy cake binge down the line. What we want to do is change what you end up eating. Basically, change the routine, change the habit.
I know that this is a lot of information, and it might seem confusing, but it boils down to this: you don't have to try to start and stop habits at the drop of a hat. Try changing one thing. Just one. Maybe when you're tired, you drink water instead of coffee. When you feel the urge to bite your nails, you grab some gum instead. The miracle of habits is that they are all connected. Change one thing, and the rest follow.
If you don't believe me, let me give you some personal proof. One day, I decided to stop eating ice cream every time I was sad or bored or tired (or awake, or breathing), and instead started guzzling tea and water. Since then, my lifestyle has completely changed. In the space of five months I've lost 35 pounds! But the only effort I put in was to avoid ice cream. Everything else has just happened. Now that you know the code, and how the system works, you can hack your own brain and reap the rewards of a better life.