The Surprisingly Easy Way to Change Your Habits and Your Life


Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article on harnessing the power of habits to change lives for the better. To learn more about the structure of habits, be sure to read Part 1: Habits Aren't Boring — They're the Secret to Happiness. Here's Why.

Having good daily habits helps us work step-by-step towards our goals and makes us more productive. However, we all know that changing habits can be very difficult, especially if the habit is deeply ingrained and the reward is something that feels good. (See also: "Good" Eating Habits That Are Keeping Us Fat)

I covered the latest research around habits in much greater detail in another recent Wise Think post, but the key, it seems, to breaking bad habits and installing good ones breaks down into two parts. The first is understanding why we might want to do such things, i.e., why having good, daily habits is good for you. The second is leveraging the structure of a habit (the cue, the routine, and the reward), so that it works for us.

As it turns out, scientists have developed a technique that seems to be the best way to change a habit. This has helped people change some awful habits that made their lives hell, so it can probably help us, too.

To test the power of this theory, I'm applying these steps to one of the habits I'd love to change: my daily interaction with social media. For a long time, I felt like social media ended up dominating my time, even when I didn't want it to. I would tell my daughter that I'd read her a book when I finished checking Facebook, only to look up 15 minutes later and realize I still hadn't read to her. So here is a small example of how this process could look in daily life. (See also: Ways to Break Your Social Media Habit)

1. Figure Out What You Want to Change

For this step, look at the routine — the pattern of behavior that makes up the habit. What is the action, set of actions, or behavior that needs to be different?

In my life, the behavior was losing myself and my sense of time online. I wanted to be able to check Facebook, email, or Twitter, but do it efficiently and without getting sucked in for longer than a few minutes at a time.

2. Try Some Different Rewards

We perform our habits because of the rewards they offer. Thus, if we can figure out what reward we are craving, then we can almost always figure out another way to get it. We may need to delve deeper into this line of questioning, asking ourselves what we are getting by performing or avoiding a certain task that seems to lead to a reward we would want.

When it came to my time online, I realized that what I wanted was to feel connected. I wanted to feel like I knew what was going on in the world, with my friends, and in the lives of people I respect and look up to, even when I had been at home with my kids all day. I also wanted to feel connected with my kids, which was a huge part of my reward for changing this habit. (See also: Why Video Is the Best Way to Connect With People)

Rewards Aren't Easy to Find

Finding a reward that works for you can be the most difficult part of changing a habit. It's hard to find a reward that meets your needs and isn't destructive, especially when the existing reward is the whole reason why you have the habit in the first place. Also, as in my own case, the reward can be pretty abstract, which makes it even harder to pinpoint. Here are some thoughts on determining the reward for your distressing habit.

  • Use a journal. When you feel like performing your existing habit, or when you have just performed it, write about how you feel. Write about what you felt like you were lacking before you went through your routine, and how you feel better about that afterwards.

  • Check different rewards. Every time you feel like performing your habit, try doing something different that gives a different reward. If you feel like you want a cookie, try eating some carrots instead. If they satisfy your need, then maybe your reward was the cessation of hunger. If they don't, try taking a nap, chewing gum, or talking to a friend next time. When you find something that works, you'll get clues into your reward.

  • Ask around. Talk to some close friends or family members about the habit you want to change. This can be nerve-wracking, especially if you feel ashamed about the habit. However, people close to you often have more insight into your behavior than you might think, and they will be likely to have some thoughts about what you're really looking for when you perform your habit.

3. Determine Your Cue(s)

This means looking at the situation that occurs right before you enter your routine. There are five questions that generally help analyze this.

  1. Where are you? (I'm usually at home.)

  2. What time is it? (Whenever.)

  3. What's your emotional state? (Tired, physically and emotionally depleted, feeling like I deserve an easy reward.)

  4. Who else is around? (Some combination of my three children.)

  5. What action preceded the urge? (Usually I get sucked into social media right after I complete a task or meet someone's need.)

When I used this to work through my actions tied to social media, I realized that I was trying to meet my legitimate need for adult interaction and connectedness at times when I was feeling especially tired. My cues, then, were emotional and physical, but not tied to a particular time or place. Depending on the habit, any one or combination of these questions can make up the cue. (See also: 7 Habits That Make Us Happier)

4. Come Up With a Plan

When you have a plan, you will be more likely to beat your habit. A huge part of this involves making your cues conscious, rather than unconscious, so that you can see when they happen and implement your new set of actions.

In my case, I found it useful to plan out a few in-person social interactions every week. These involved meals or coffee out with friends, having other couples and families over to our home in the evenings, and planning phone calls with far away friends. Having these places of adult social interaction helped me feel like I was connected (or going to be connected) with people, and so I didn't have to search for that all day long. (See also: Why Cultivating Relationships Is Good for You)

I also found a place for my electronic devices that was easily within my reach if I really needed them, but not so close that I could check them without thinking. This helped me to make my cues conscious, because I had to think about where my phone, iPad, and computer were before I could use them. That interruption was usually enough for me to determine whether it was really a good time to check in online and, if not, what I might rather be doing with my time.

My New Habit

In the end, I found changing this habit to be a powerful motion in my life. Now, I not only spend more time with my kids and feel like I know them a little bit better, but I get more done in my days, too. I use my time better, both online and offline, and I spend more time interacting with the people close to me in real life, which is more satisfying and has helped our relationships grow.

Habits can be difficult and frustrating, as I well know, but they can also make our lives more productive and ourselves happier. It is worth understanding the how and why of daily habits, so that we can make their power work for us rather than against us.

Have you successfully changed any of your habits for the better? What worked for you?

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