What’s the first thing that you do every morning when you wake up? Are you aware of it or do you just go through the motions? Have you ever heard the phrase that humans are “creatures of habit”? Ever taken the time to really think about what this means? If so, you’re not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of studies have focused on habits and their power to change lives for better or for worse.

In keeping with my New Year’s resolution for last year and this year to read more, I’ve been going back and forth with deep, thought provoking books and more lighthearted, fun reads. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and let me tell you, it is absolutely fascinating.

Habits in Everyday Life

Everyday each of us makes thousands of small decisions without even realizing it. Do I put my right leg in my pants first or my left? It’s something that I’ve honestly never thought about, but I don’t walk out the door without pants. So, who makes the decision if I don’t consciously make it?

All actions that become habit tend to be difficult at first as you have to think about each step of the process. Slowly, over time, these actions become easier until eventually, you don’t think about them at all and your brain puts them on autopilot. When I was young and first putting on pants, I had to concentrate on the process very hard and probably needed some help from my parents. After a while, I could do it on my own and now I can chew bubble gum, talk, and put on pants because I no longer consciously think about the small task at hand.

Our brains have stored thousands of daily decisions like this to free up the rest of our mind to focus on more pressing issues. This is an extremely important task that our brains take on. If we had to actively make all of these tiny decisions every single day, we would be so mentally exhausted that we would never get to making strides on very difficult and important tasks. We’d be overcome by decision fatigue, leaving us tired and overwhelmed by the end of the day. Habits are the superpowers your body creates that allow you to conquer the world…

Cue, Action, Cookie

All habits are made up of the same three components: cue, action and reward. Take for example, unnecessary snacking before dinner (something I’m constantly guilty of doing). I get home from work, walk into the kitchen to say hello to my wife, see the package of cookies on the counter and immediately go for them.

In this scenario, the cue is seeing the package of cookies, the action is taking a cookie and the reward is well… a cookie. Doing this every once in a while is fine, however, since I’ve developed the habit of doing this so often, it’s started to add to my waistline. Conversely, if I were to get rid of this habit and replace it with either a snack that’s healthier or eliminate the pre-dinner snack completely, it could start to have a much better impact on my overall health.

Nix Bad Habits

So, what can I do about it? How do I break this terrible habit? What I can do is prevent the cue, action, reward cycle from ever starting, in this case by removing the cookies from the counter and putting them away. Perhaps, I can even put the fruit bowl in that spot since I am now used to looking there for food when I’m home from work.

Assuming that not everyone has the same cookie problem that I have, the general philosophy will work for any potential bad habit. To use a finance related example, if you have a bad shopping habit and are tempted with every sale you receive in your inbox, start unsubscribing from every store’s automatic emails. If you never see the cue to kick off your habit, then the habit will not occur. Put as many of these small barriers between you and your bad habit as possible.

Cultivate Good Habits

Another part of my New Year’s resolutions was to instill a good morning routine, involving yoga and working on this blog. In order to help myself develop the “cue, action, reward” cycle for this habit, I do everything that I can to remove any barriers from completing this routine. This includes, leaving my yoga mat out the night before so that it is right there when I get up in the morning and prepping my work bag, lunch and gym clothes the night before. This ensures that I have time to relax, do yoga and then research or write for you lovely folks.

To help get good habits started, you want to roll out the red carpet (or the yoga mat) by placing those cues in your path to kick off the habit. If you want to develop a habit to run in the mornings, put your running shoes and clothes where you will see them first thing in the morning and start small. Don’t try to run 10 miles on your first morning run. Just try to get yourself up and out the door on a consistent basis. Then, build on the good habit you’ve cultivated to extend your run to the goal you really want to reach.

Your habit superpower just needs you to hit the first domino of creating your “cue, action, reward” cycle. Once you have this cycle in place, your superpowers will take care of the rest.

And So Much More…

In addition to getting down to the core of what makes us humans tick and how habits are developed, this book digs into the fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) way that companies can use habit creation to get us to buy their products. Perhaps learning their tricks will help you avoid falling prey to them…

I highly recommend not only reading this book, but taking in the inner workings of habits to adopt into your own life as you struggle down the same road we all do, self improvement.

What habit superpowers have you cultivated in your own life? Have you read Charles Duhigg’s book? Is there another book on habits that influenced you? Let me know in the comments!