The science behind habit creation as explained by Charles Duhigg

I’ve recently finished reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It is a book that analyzes why we do what we do. It focuses on the power of habit creation and how we can replace bad habits with good ones. For instance, we can look at the example of how a young child picks up bad habits. Often times young children are bound by the knowledge they know through things they see, touch, smell and feel. For every bad habit a young child forms, they form an even worse or an even better habit fast, and that is because they are constantly evolving in terms of the knowledge they capture from their surroundings. How is it that a young child is able to form new habits (either good or bad in their case), but adults have a harder time with forming habits — such as erasing bad habits and replacing them good ones?

One justification that springs to mind is this — children don’t have set ideas or methods by which they act or do something. One minute they could be building a doll house and the next minute they could be hurting themselves for cheap thrills, all with the hopes of finding an activity that they cherish. What is actually happening is that they are constantly in the process of forming habits.

Let’s fast forward the context a bit here, by the time you’re a young adult, you have developed some habits that can be considered both detrimental and positive to your daily routines. But have you ever wondered how these habits have come to be? Duhigg breaks down the science of habit formation in the following cycle-

The cycle of habit creation

The cue is the first activity that triggers the habit process. For instance, often times, when you walk by a restaurant, the smell of the food is the cue, that invokes a sense of craving that makes you want the food. The routine is the next activity that takes place after the cue is addressed. To address our craving for the food, we choose to walk into the restaurant and order the food that ignited the desire for it in the first place. The last activity that occurs in the process is the reward, and this refers to the feeling of satisfaction we feel after we take that first bite. The reward is the feeling that the person subconsciously wants to feel when following any process instinctively. Over time, this can lead to habit creation that we incorporate into our daily lives. This leads to the person who always walks by the same restaurant every day, to constantly follow the cue of the smell of the food, and walk into the restaurant to order it.

So how do we conquer bad habits and replace them good ones? The answer lies in how we address the cue. Successfully identifying cues before you follow your routine, can lead to acknowledging bad habits from good ones. It means changing your cues once you start to notice that it is the trigger that leads you to practice unhealthy habits. It means that the person who walks by the restaurant starts to take a different route by which he ultimately avoids walking by the restaurant. As Duhigg states in the book, identifying your cues and actively working to change them is often hard and requires a balance of both will power and focus. Working with the determination to change requires a discipline and a willingness to get better. To summarize my learnings from the book, keeping the three activities of the process of habit creation in mind is a vital first step to ensuring that you are on the right path to replacing bad habits with good ones.


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