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The Power of Habit

Is there a habit you wish you could break? Or how about a new habit – like using your strengths more at work – that you wish you could create? Either way do you really understand how habits are ingrained in your brain?

This was a big a-ha moment for me. Like most people I’d tried to tackle my habits through sheer willpower and rarely managed to get very far. It wasn’t until I learned that my habits run on a simple neurological loop of cue, routine and reward that I learned how to making creating and breaking habits much easier.

You see  it seems that your brain is alert to environmental cues that trigger your habits, but then tunes out to the routine of the habit, only to fire up again when you are rewarded in some way. For example, when it comes to your habit of the mid-afternoon chocolate bar, the brain will be alert to the snack time, but then slows down when you are in the automatic activity of getting the chocolate from the vending machine, and fires up again with the tasty reward.

Want to learn more about how this work? Then watch New York Times reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg share his research in this great TedX Talk on the Power of Habits.

What Will You Learn?

  •  [1:30]   Research into the brain activity has found that when a learned behavior becomes an automatic habit, mental activity drops off to the same level as the brain’s sleeping pattern.
  • [3:10]    Approximately forty to forty five per cent of the decisions we make each day aren’t actually decisions, but are habits.
  • [4:03]   For every habit we have a habit loop, that consists of a cue (an automatic trigger for behavior to start), then a routine (the behavior itself) and finally a reward (that helps our brain remember the pattern for the future).
  • [4:40]   For example a study in Germany found that when people choose a cue, such as putting their running shoes next to their bed, or buddying up with a running partner, and then rewarding themselves with a piece of chocolate after a run, were more likely to be still exercising six months later.
  • [9:31]    The most famous study on willpower –  the marshmallow test at Stanford University- involved giving a four year old child a marshmallow, informing them they could eat it if they wanted to, but if they didn’t eat it they would be given a second marshmallow to eat when the researcher returned to the room ten minutes later.
  • [12:13]  Recent research by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania has found that willpower seems to be the strongest predictor of future success, more so than IQ or family background.
  • [12:42]  You can teach willpower through habits, by choosing an action ahead of time, and then applying this to a cue, and rewarding yourself for your actions. This works best when you are as specific as possible about what your trigger, response and rewards will be.
  • [15:23] If you engage in this mindfulness in your life – where you’re aware of what’s driving your behavior where your brain actually turns off – you have the ability to change any habit in your life.

What Can You Try?

You can use this simple neurological habit loop to introduce new positive wellbeing habits into your working life. For example, thousands of people around the world have used it to create a daily 11-minute strengths habit by creating a:

  • 30 second cue – use a cue such as a regular time of day, an existing routine, or an emotion, and use when/then statements to prime your brain. For example this may be when you get out of bed in the morning, turning on your computer at work, writing your to-do list, or noticing feelings of self-doubt.
  • 10 minute routine – this can be physical, mental or emotional, and it can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple. It all depends on the strength you want to develop or the wellbeing outcome you’re trying to achieve. For example it might be taking the time to read up on a project that’s happening in your workplace, searching the internet for new information, thanking someone for making your day a bit easier, or offering to help others out.
  • 30 second reward –this can be anything that produces a natural rush of dopamine – the feel good chemical in your head – that gets you craving more of the same behavior (though Preferably nothing involving alcohol or chocolate when it comes to improving your wellbeing). For example it could be grabbing your morning coffee, checking your emails or going home at the end of the day.

For example:

  • Creativity – when I sit down for my morning coffee (cue), I’ll spend ten minutes brainstorming as many ideas, solutions, possibilities to a problem or opportunity our team is facing (routine). I’ll share the best three ideas with another team member (reward).
  •  Humor – when I stop for lunch (cue), then I’ll take the time to share a joke or a funny story with a colleague (routine). I’ll celebrate by eating my food (reward).
  • Fairness – when reviewing my schedule each morning (cue), I’ll look for one thing I can do today to make life a little easier for my colleagues or a client (routine). Then I’ll grab my morning coffee (reward).

For more than 70 different strengths development habits grab our free ebook here.

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