Generally we associate habits with things like biting our nails, smoking, or running late, but habits occur in many different forms and sometimes impact our lives in ways unbeknownst to us.


When you woke up today and started going through your morning routine—slippers on, coffee on, breakfast out – you were acting out of habit.  This might not seem significant, but what’s interesting is that recent studies reveal just how much control we actually have over habits, and therefore our day-to-day lives.


According to a researcher at Duke University, more than 40 percent of the actions we perform each day are habits rather than decisions. So what does that mean for you? Well, because habits play such a formative role in your day to day life, when good habits are handled correctly they can actually provide you with a kind of healthy control and structure.  The problem arises when you engage in unwanted or unhealthy habits.


In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg articulates an incredibly interesting study predicated on the habit “loop” discovered by MIT researchers, which consists of three elements that are at the core of every habit: cue, routine and reward.


The routine is generally the behavior you’re trying to change—let’s say going to happy hour after work rather than the gym. The cue is what sets off the routine, perhaps boredom, or a coworker stopping by your desk at 5. The reward is what satisfies the craving that the routine ultimately fulfills, in this case the relaxation that comes with a glass of wine, or the feeling of being in good company.


As Duhigg points out, it can be difficult to identify cues that trigger our habits and the cravings we’re trying to satisfy by engaging in them, because there’s so much information related to how our behaviors unfold.  The good news is that there are steps we can take to replace poor habits with better ones:


  1. Identify the routine: Isolate the habit you want to change and identify the routine or ritual surrounding it.  Maybe it’s getting up from your desk at work, picking up your cigarettes and lighter, and heading outside to smoke.

  2. Isolate the cue:  What sets your unwanted routine into motion?  Cues generally fit into one of the following categories: your location, the time of day, your emotional state, the company you keep, and the action immediately preceding the undesirable habit. For example, by paying attention to these things you can determine whether you smoke because you’re bored, looking for an excuse to go outside, or trying to calm your frazzled nerves.

  3. Experiment with replacement rewards: If while trying to quit smoking you realize that you crave a cigarette at certain times each day, try engaging in a different rewarding activity at those times. Get a cup of coffee with a friend, go for a walk, listen to your favorite music or do push ups.

  4. Have a plan: Once you’ve identified your habit loop, put a plan in place to develop a new and better habit.  Experiment with new routines and rewards in response to the old cues until you’ve developed a plan that works

  5. Build in accountability: Write down and talk with friends and loved ones about the habits you want to change or create.  This added accountability can increase your chances of success.   Partnering with a “buddy” who is also trying to change an unwanted habit can prove invaluable, when resisting temptation becomes difficult.


Please be patient with yourself as you work toward eliminating bad habits and developing better ones.  The road to success can be rocky and requires attention, effort and will-power.

Do Your Habits Control You or Vice Versa?

by Maud Purcell

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© 2015 Maud Purcell