Change One Small Habit, Change Your Life

Recent brain science shows how to resist temptation, get motivated and blow up your routine for the better

by Brian Alexander
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

This morning I rolled out of bed at 5:30. I mean this literally. I rolled onto the floor, paused on all fours and moaned, “Oh, God.” It was not a prayer.

I became a writer partly because I figured nobody would ever ask me to get up at 5:30 to deliver an emergency adjective. But there I was at 5:45, sitting in front of a keyboard as part of my new strategy for creating better work habits. The goal: to improve the trajectory of my career, maybe even my life.

My inspiration for this hard-for-me change was a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by investigative journalist and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. To achieve change in your life, Duhigg argues, simply plug new routines into your day and stick with them until they become habits. The concept amounts to a grownup version of the rule my mother instituted when I started first grade: Finish homework first, and then you can play outside. The bigger payoff is that these new habits can, in turn, become “keystones” supporting other, seemingly unrelated changes. Change one habit, and maybe your social life will improve, your business will become more profitable, your family will be happier.

The idea is simple to state but not so simple to put into practice. If rebooting our habits were easy, “we’d all be thin, and we wouldn’t have so many people with drinking problems,” says Dartmouth University professor Todd Heatherton, PhD, who researches self-regulation, the process by which people exert control over their behavior. Still, habits form according to an elegantly simple logic, and understanding the process opens the door to all sorts of beneficial changes.

Your brain loves it when you develop habits. That’s because your brain requires lots of energy, especially when you’re reasoning, so the more activity it can shunt onto autopilot, the more power it has for complicated stuff like completing your tax returns. To keep you from having to think about behaviors you repeat often—how you commute to work, take a shower, make love—your brain forms sets of boilerplate instructions.

How does the brain persuade us to embrace a habit? By giving us rewards (through a series of chemicals that activate pleasure and motivational circuits), it teaches us to always respond to a certain cue with the same routine behavior. For example, you see that it’s 7:30 am (cue), so you hop into your car and drive to work (routine). Because you’ve left on time, you avoid traffic and get to work exactly when you should (reward). A cue could also be the sight of your favorite chocolate. Eat the chocolate (your “routine” whenever you see a tasty-looking piece), and your pleasure circuits will spring into high gear. Another example: Your beloved gets home from work (cue), and you sit down to drink dirty martinis together (routine). Eat, drink, have sex—in every case, your brain chemicals will provide bliss or, even more powerfully, release you from stress or anxiety. When we get a reward, we’re motivated to repeat whatever action (routine) led to it. Soon we’re in what Duhigg calls a habit loop. His equation: cue + routine + reward = habit.

First published in the June 2013 issue

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