Three Habits You Can Break or Create Today

In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. We've learned how habits form -- and why they are so hard to break.
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When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut? What did you say to your kids on the way out the door? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the television?

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they're not. They're habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, and how often we exercise have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. We've learned how habits form -- and why they are so hard to break.

As a result, we now know how to create good habits and change bad ones like never before.

At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

1. Exercise

If you want to start an exercise habit, according to studies, it is essentially that you take advantage of the habit loop. Take, for instance, creating a habit to go running each morning. Studies say that you must choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day) and a clear reward (such as a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles or the endorphin rush you get from a jog).

But, at first, the rewards inherent in exercise aren't enough. So to teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy -- such as a small piece of chocolate -- after your workout.

This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to loose weight. But the goal here is to train your brain to associate a certain cue ("It's 5 o'clock") with a routine ("Three miles down!") and a reward ("Chocolate!").

Eventually, your brain will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise ("It's 5 o'clock. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!") and you won't need the chocolate anymore. In fact, you won't even want it. But until your neurology learns to enjoy those endorphins and the other rewards inherent in exercise, you need to jump-start the process.

And then, over time, it will become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. You won't want the chocolate anymore. You'll just crave the endorphins. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, will start triggering a craving for the inherent rewards to come.

2. Eating

In 2009 a group of researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health assembled a group of 1,600 obese people and asked them to concentrate on writing down everything they ate at least one day per week.

It was hard at first. The subjects forgot to carry their food journals or would snack and not note it. Slowly, however, people started recording their meals once a week -- and sometimes, more often. Many participants started keeping a daily food log. Eventually, it became a habit.

Then, something unexpected happened. The participants started looking at their entries and finding patterns they didn't know existed. Some noticed they always seemed to snack at about 10 a.m., so they began keeping an apple or banana on their desks for midmorning munchies. Others started using their journals to plan future menus, and when dinner rolled around, they ate the healthy meal they had written down, rather than junk food from the fridge.

The researchers hadn't suggested any of these behaviors. They had simply asked everyone to write down what they ate once a week. But what they discovered is that food journaling is a "keystone habit" -- a pattern that makes other habits easier to establish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.

This same principle can be applied to all kind of other behaviors -- figure out the keystone habits in your life, and use them to create other, better patterns. When you drink, for instance, does it set off a cascade of other bad habits? When you keep careful track of your credit card use, do you find that it spills into better patterns, like also going to be earlier, or doing a better job of paying bills on time? If you identify keystone habits, you can remake what you automatically eat, how you unthinkingly get work done, and how you subconsciously community with your kids and peers.

"After a while, the journal got inside my head," one person in the eating study told me. "I started thinking about meals differently. It gave me a system for thinking about food without becoming depressed."

3. Nailbiting

In the summer of 2006, a 24-year-old graduate student named Mandy walked into the counseling center at Mississippi State University. For most of her life, Mandy had bitten her nails, gnawing them until they bled. Her fingertips were covered with tiny scabs.

The counseling center referred Mandy to a doctoral psychology student who was studying a treatment known as "habit reversal training." The psychologist knew that changing Mandy's nail biting habit required inserting a new routine into her life.

"What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth to bite your nails?" he asked her.

"There's a little bit of tension in my fingers," Mandy said. "It hurts a little bit here, at the edge of the nail. Sometimes I'll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I'll bring it up to my mouth then. I'll go finger by finger, biting all the rough edges."

The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting habit.

Next, the therapist asked Mandy to describe why she bit her nails. At first, she had trouble coming up with reasons. As they talked, though, it became clearer that she bit when she was bored. The therapist put her in some typical situations, such as watching television and doing homework, and she started nibbling. When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. That was the habit's reward: a physical stimulation she had come to crave.

The therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue -- a tension in your fingertips -- make a check mark on the card. She came back a week later with 28 checks. She was, by that point, acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit.

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a "competing response." Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation -- such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk -- anything that would produce a physical response.

The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times. She rewarded herself with a manicure but kept using the note cards. After a month, the nail-biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had replaced another.

"It seems ridiculously simple, but once you're aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you're half way to changing it," Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, told me. "It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it."

To learn more -- including how to create willpower habits among kids, and what we've learned about how habits function within lives, companies and society -- read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change or visit

For more by Charles Duhigg, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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