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Habits: Are You Stuck With Them?


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I am your constant companion.
I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden.
I will push you onward or drag you down to failure.
I am completely at your command.
Half of the things you do you might as well turn over to me and I will do them – quickly and correctly.
I am easily managed – you must be firm with me.
Show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons, I will do it automatically.
I am the servant of great people, and alas, of all failures as well.
Those who are great, I have made great.
Those who are failures, I have made failures.
I am not a machine though I work with the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a person.
You may run me for profit or run me for ruin – it makes no difference to me.
Take me, train me, be firm with me, and
I will place the world at your feet.
Be easy with me and I will destroy you.
Who am I? I am Habit.

– Anonymous

In his best selling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg argues that most of the choices we make may feel like products of well-considered decision making. In reality, they are not. He explains:

They are 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, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impact on our heath, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Duhigg’s research not only explains why habits work, but also how habits change. With an understanding of what habits are and then how you can change them, you can truly improve your life one baby step at a time. In fact, Duhigg presents the reader with Lisa Allen, a once overweight, chain-smoking, debt-laden woman who with one simple change in habit snowballed into a fit, vibrant, highly employed graphic designer.

Can habits really affect your life so profoundly? Duhigg argues that the answer is “yes.” And, he has the research to prove it.

The Habit Loop

The process of forming a habit is a three-step loop within our brains. First, there is a cue, or a trigger that signals to your brain to got into “automatic.” Then, there is the routine, or the response, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. Lastly, there is the reward, which helps your mind figure out if this loop is worth recalling for the future. The following is a diagram of the habit loop:

With time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and the reward become interconnected until your brain anticipates the reward as soon as it hears, sees, or touches the cue. In this way, the routine action becomes a habit – a powerful craving for a reward whenever the trigger is activated.Schonfeld-012513

Now, of course, habits are not fixed in stone. Duhigg writes, “Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.” However, habits are so powerful because unless you actively work on fighting it, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making and focuses on other tasks. Therefore, unless you create new routines, the original habit (or routine) will progress automatically.

Changing Habits

The more we understand habits, the easier they are to break down into their individual parts and change. The trick is not to get rid of habits, but to create ones that are more in line with our needs and values. After all, our basic activities would seem daunting if we did not have an automatic routine to fall back on. Therefore, the goal is to change existing negative habits into ones that work within our desired lifestyles.

The Golden Rule Of Habit Change

As I explained above, you cannot get rid of a bad habit, you can only change it. But, how can you change it? In essence, you use the same cue, provide the same reward, but change the routine in the middle. For instance, if your bad habit is that you bite your nails, first you need to break down the habit into its individual components.

Let’s take Ruchie. She bites her nails, but has no idea why. When asked to think about it and record when she does it, she realizes that she bites them when she is bored. When put in a boring situation, Ruchie worked through all of her nails and felt a “sense of completeness.” That physical stimulation or sense of completeness, at its root, is the reward for the Ruchie’s nail-biting habit.

The cue for Ruchie’s nail biting is boredom and is usually signified by a slight tingling in her fingers, her routine is biting her nails, and the reward is the physical sensation of completeness. In order to change this habit, Ruchie can keep the cue (the tingling sensation) and the reward (the sensation of completeness), but change the routine. Instead of biting her nails, when Ruchie experiences the cue, she could sit on her hands. With enough repetition of cue, routine, and reward, Ruchie’s brain will eventually be “reprogrammed” to habitually sit on her hands rather than bite her fingernails.

That being said, it is important to note that changing deeply ingrained habits such as overeating or smoking is not easily accomplished. Changing a habit requires determination, but understanding the way that habits work helps people attack the problem at its root and gain insights into creating new habits.

Change Your Routine, Change Your Life

Often, we do not understand what reward we are seeking when we follow a routine. If you want to stop snacking at work, you should ask yourself, “Is the reward I’m seeking to satisfy my hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom?” If you are snacking in order to relieve boredom, taking a quick walk or taking three minutes to talk to a colleague can provide the same reward without the extra calories.

The same goes for any habit that you wish to change. Once you figure out the reward that you are seeking, replace that routine with something that will give you the same reward. Through the power of habit, Duhigg gives his readers words of hope, “We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing. Perennial losers can become champions. You can stop biting your nails or snacking at work, yelling at your kids or staying up all night worrying over small concerns.” With the power of habit – and the power of knowing the science of habit – you can change your life for the better.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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