How to Change a Habit – New Discoveries

Donald Miller

I have a terrible habit and it’s this: Every few nights, right before I go to bed, I eat one or two chocolate chip cookies and a whole glass of milk.

I know it’s not as bad as smoking or anything, but still, it’s a habit I’d like to change. And I’ve tried, to no avail until recently when I realized habits are incredibly powerful in determining our health, happiness and success, and that habits could be changed.

I had dinner with a guy recently who serves as an executive coach for several high powered figures in DC. Curious about how the world’s highly productive operate, I asked him what characteristics they had most in common.

His answer wasn’t surprising.

He said they had established good habits.

New research by Charles Duhigg, recounted in his book, The Power of Habit, helps us understand some important dynamics about how the brain works.

• • •

Here are a few of the big ideas:

  • The brain chunks activities into habits to save mental energy.
  • When a routine becomes a habit, the brain performs these routines automatically and without thinking.
  • Healthy habits influence healthy lives and unhealthy habits determine unhealthy lives.
  • Habits can be changed.

• • •

*Photo by Denise Cross, Creative Commons

After reading the book you’ll likely find the ideas as profound as they are obvious. If you can establish good, healthy habits, you’ll live a better life.

Before I talk about how a habit is changed, I’ll give you Duhigg’s explanation of how a habit is formed. According to Duhigg, a habit is formed when the brain follows a three-step routine:

The Cue: The cue is a mental trigger that is followed by a routine. The cue for me was the thought of a chocolate chip cookie. It normally hits me every few nights at about 8:00pm, or shortly after dinner.

The Routine: The routine is to eat the cookie and drink the milk. To me, it seems automatic, as though my brain isn’t even thinking about what it’s doing.

The Reward: Obviously, the taste of the cookie and the little bit of relaxation sugar provides.

Not a great habit.

So how do we change our habits?

The trick, according to Duhigg, is not to resist but to replace.

What he means is that we have to find some other routine that elicits a reward to replace the bad routine that is affecting our lives.

 • • •

For me, changing the cookie habit worked like this:

Cue: The thought of a cookie.

Routine: As soon as I thought about the cookie, I knew my brain NEEDED A REWARD so I would go jogging or do some kind of exercise. Exercise releases a pleasure chemical in the brain, replacing the sugar reward with a different one.

Reward: The pleasure chemical from exercising, along with a feeling of competency.

 • • •

So far, so good. It’s not gone perfect, but I’m definitely breaking the cookie habit.

Also, if you try it and relapse a few times, check out my earlier blog on the role of self-grace in changing a habit.

How have you learned to establish good habits?

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.