These past 18 months have seen the world reevaluate all sorts of things that we once deemed “normal” or “every day.” Commuting to an office? Suddenly not routine. Carrying a mask with you? Part of the checklist when leaving the house. Words like vaccine, testing positive, and antibodies? Suddenly part of the everyday lexicon. So what’s normal and what’s not? The truth is that we can become used to almost anything, and the triggers and habits we choose to repeat are what dictates what remains as a fixture in our lives.
In his book, Triggers: Creating Behavior Change that Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be, Marshall Goldsmith forces us to deal with the question: “Why is making adult behavioral change so hard?” In other words, how come adults feel that their lives and actions are set in stone? Why do we feel it is so difficult to make changes in our lives once we reach a certain age?
For many years, Goldsmith researched how we interact with other people and how we view ourselves. In this book, he focuses on the effect of the environment on our actions. He calls the environment’s effect triggers. Triggers can be smells, sounds, people, and places. The process he describes for triggers is:
Trigger à impulse à behavior
However, if we become aware of the trigger and the behavior, we can change the process to:
Trigger à impulse à awareness à choice à behavior
The Power of Habit
This idea mirrors Charles Duhigg’s research in The Power of Habit The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. He argues that most of the choices we make each day 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 impacts 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 go 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.
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.
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 that habit, 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.
The more we understand about habits, the easier they are to break down into their individual parts and change in order to lead happier, more fulfilled lives. 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, without habits such as many of our morning routines and nightly rituals, we would be consumed by the minutiae of our everyday lives. Even 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.
Wheel of Change
In order to understand who we want to become, Goldsmith suggests mapping out the “wheel of change.” This wheel has four sections:
- Positive change: Think about behaviors you would like to start doing. What actions will you create?
- Positive keep: Think about the parts of yourself that you value and would like to maintain. What will you actively keep in your life?
- Negative change: Think about the things you would like to stop doing. What will you eliminate from your life?
- Negative keep: Think about the negative aspects of your personality that you must accept. What will you keep and then how will you learn to compensate?
Daily Question Process
Based on the wheel of change, you can formulate questions that you ask yourself every day that help keep you structured and on task. Some options for questions are:
- Did I do my best to set clear goals today?
- Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals today?
- Did I do my best to find meaning today?
- Did I do my best to be happy today?
- Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
- Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?
You can modify these questions to your personal goals because each person is looking to become their best, not someone else’s best. Goldsmith argues that if you hold yourself accountable each day, you will eventually see progress. The real question is: do I really want to make an investment to see positive change?