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Recently, I spoke with my friend about his work. He told me that he has so much work that he ends up working overtime almost every day.
Of course, I felt sorry for him, but I couldn’t give up the impression that if he was able to get rid of a couple of bad work habits, he would be much more efficient.
Since I worked with him for a couple of years, I knew his working routine. Every day, he shows up at 8 a.m. and won’t start his day without a morning coffee and chat about last weekend’s events. Eventually, he’d start working around 8:30, complaining about the amount of work.
If he had developed good work habits, he wouldn’t have to work 10 or 11 hours a day.
But is it easy to change a habit? How do we fall into habits anyway?
From this post, you’ll learn what habits do to your brain and how you can outsmart them to be more efficient, better organized and successful in your daily life.
The science of habit
According to Wendy Wood and David T. Neal’s study, about 45% decisions we make every day, aren’t actually decisions, but habits.
It means that almost 50% of our lives is habitual! Half the time we are awake, we repeat the same actions in the same context, and we cannot recall the exact moment of doing these actions. Just like some sort of zombies, right?
It doesn’t sound so terrifying once we get to know more about the mechanism of a habit.
In the below Ted speech Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer describes the way habits influence our brain.
Duhigg described the rat-maze experiment that helped to examine the nature of habits. Every rat that was dropped into the maze for the first time needed approximately 13 minutes to find a piece of chocolate. As scientists found out, during that period their neurological activity was very high.
All experiments were repeated 150 times, and over time, rats learned where to go to find the chocolate and ran through the maze much faster. But at the same time as finding chocolate became an automated habit, the rats were thinking about it less and less.
In the end, the neurological activity of rats that had the habit of finding chocolate in the particular part of the maze was the same as if they were sleeping.
The same thing happens to the human brain when we’re in the middle of our habits: our mental activity is dropping.
Is it bad?
Not at all! Habits make your life easier as thanks to them you don’t have to pay attention to every action you’re taking. You get up at 7 a.m., take a shower and dress up, that’s the routine part. You don’t have to focus on your actions just to brush your teeth, right?
And at the same time, you can think about more creative things. You can go through your schedule and plan it, you can think about the presentation you have this morning, about new ideas or holiday plans.
But what if your habits are bad? If instead of turning your life easier, make it more complicated? For example, if instead of doing your job, you find yourself wondering on social media pages and you can’t exactly recall the moment when you stopped working?
It means that you need to get out of the habit loop.
The habit loop
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.
The habit loop starts with a trigger. For example, you look at a clock and you notice that it’s 1:30 p.m. and it’s time for your second coffee. You get up, go to a cafeteria, and take a coffee and a donut. Why donut? Because it’s delicious, that’s why!
But the problem is, you don’t want to eat donuts. They are unhealthy and if you think about it, another coffee is unhealthy too. But every day at 1:30, something pushes you to a cafeteria, and you can’t keep yourself from buying coffee and this darn donut.
Welcome to the habit loop.
The most important part of this loop is the reward. You don’t want to take a walk at 1:30 for the sake of a walk, you’re going to a cafeteria because you’ll get there a moment of sinful pleasure filled with carbs.
That’s your motivator.
So, if you want to get rid of a habit, you have to find another, better, healthier way, to yield the same reward.
How to break a habit
When you’re trying to implement a new routine to your life, you should reward yourself.
Rewards are not only the pleasures of our lives. They’re also signals for our brain that if we follow the same path again, we will get the same reward again.
So, let’s get back to our habit of drinking coffee and eating a donut.
If we decide not to go to a cafeteria at all, we might overcome it once or twice, but in the end, you will come back to the same old habit.
But if instead of making a sacrifice, you’ll promise to yourself to drink a smoothie or eat a piece of sweet pineapple; your brain will recognize the pleasure and will make it easier to break your old routine.
Remember my procrastinating friend?
If he asked me how to overcome the habit of chatting for 30 minutes at the beginning of each day, I’d recommend him coming to work at 8 a.m., not grabbing a cup of coffee and starting this day from the worst, time-consuming task.
As soon as the task would be over, I’d recommend to have a walk to a cafeteria and chat hard for about 15 minutes to reward himself for getting the task done.
There’s one trick though: your brain needs to expect a reward. The reward itself is not strong enough to form a new habit; it needs to expect a reward to crave endorphins and give you a signal that this new routine is good for you.
After a couple of repeats, it should become your new, better habit!
Get rid of bad work habits
Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health — both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.
Breaking a habit is all about self-control.
You have to figure out what your bad habit is, what’s the cue, what’s the reward and what’s the routine.
Once you do that, you will be able to change the elements of your habit, so that you can be more productive or healthy. Don’t say to yourself: “starting from tomorrow, I’m going to prepare at least one page of a report” (these apps for work should help you to do that).
You should tell yourself: “Tomorrow at 10 a.m. I’ll start crafting one page of my report, and once it’s done, I’ll have a piece of chocolate!”. It’s a “cue - routine - reward” strategy.
And once you learn how to hack your brain and replace a bad habit with a good one, you’ll notice that nothing can stop you from achieving success.