Bad Habits, Good Habits and How to Change Your Life for the Better

Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, changed how we think about leadership. Yet, the title is a bit of a misnomer. The “habits” were really practices or approaches to an effective life.

A habit is something you do without thinking (more on this in a minute).

Covey’s “habits” were certainly things you’d ultimately like to do without thinking. But for most people, they require being intentional about how we do things. I want to address habits in the more conventional sense and how to make them work for you.

Charles Duhigg does a great job of breaking down how habits work in his book, The Power of Habit. According to him, a habit requires three components:

  • A cue
  • The action (habit)
  • A reward

He shows how to deconstruct a bad habit in this video about his habit of getting up from his desk every day at 3pm to buy a chocolate chip cookie (you may decide that’s not a bad habit, but he did). How did he do it?

His cue was 3pm. Break time. Like clockwork, so to speak.

The habit was to get on the elevator and ride up to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, go talk to somebody for 10 minutes while he ate the cookie, then go back to work.

The reward, so he thought, was the cookie.

As it turns out, the reward was actually socializing. Once he understood this, he was able to rework his habit so that every day at 3pm he would get up, go to a co-worker’s desk and chat for 10 minutes, then go back to his desk. The reward was essentially the same, but the habit no longer included the cookie. He also lost weight.

Duhigg has a great flowchart if you’re trying to deconstruct a bad habit.

But what about good habits? And why do they matter?

As it turns out, good habits are the bedrock for people who get things done in this world. Why is this? Because willpower and self-discipline are an exhaustible resource and good habits enable us to do things without using that willpower.

This Atlantic magazine article documents a now famous experiment in 1996 by Roy Baumeister and his Case Western Reserve University colleagues. They subjected participants to the aroma and presence of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Some of the participants were allowed to eat the cookies. Others were told they could not and were told to eat radishes instead (they were not happy).

The participants were then asked to go to another room for what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. There they were asked to solve what they didn’t know was an unsolvable puzzle. The result?

The radish-eaters made fewer attempts and spent less than half the time attempting to solve the puzzle compared to the cookie-eaters or a control group that faced neither cookies nor radishes.

The conclusion: self-discipline, self-control, willpower are exhaustible resources. The more you use them, the less you have available.

In their book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, list the factors that deplete your willpower:

  • Implementing new behaviors
  • Filtering distractions
  • Resisting temptation
  • Suppressing impulses
  • Taking tests
  • Trying to impress others
  • Coping with fear
  • Doing something you don’t enjoy
  • Selecting long over short term rewards

This explains why you can’t resist that quart of ice cream or the bag of chips after you’ve had a taxing day.

The authors go further and contend that self-discipline is not something that is available at our beck and call. So if you think you are not self-disciplined, you’re not alone. Sometimes we are, when our willpower hasn’t been depleted. Other times we’re not.

Here’s the key: people who get the results they want aren’t any more self-disciplined. What they ARE able to do is to focus their efforts long enough to develop a positive habit. Once that habit is developed, they are able to do it without thinking and without depleting their willpower. They can then do it again to add another positive habit.

If you apply this process to your life, you will be doing amazing things without depleting your willpower much at all. This leaves that willpower available to deal with the many challenges that each day brings.

We can apply this process to our spiritual lives: prayer, meditation, reading scripture and journaling are habits that, when developed, keep us focused on what really matters. That’s a must for effective leaders.

We can apply this process to our professional lives: reading, writing, research, sermon preparation, planning and learning new skills are just some habits that can boost our productivity tremendously.

We can apply this process to our physical lives: eating right, exercising, flossing and drinking plenty of water are habits that will help us feel better, live longer and work more effectively.

Keller and Papasan maintain that research supports the idea that it takes an average of 66 days to develop a habit. They also caution to only try to develop one habit at a time. Focus on it until it really becomes a habit and it will no longer require any willpower. You’ll just do it (that would make a great slogan). Then you can focus on a new habit.

Here are two tools to help you get started:

This flowchart from Duhigg will help you determine the cue and reward for your new habit (he’s assuming you know what the action is, as that’s the habit).

The the1thing.com has a downloadable 66-day calendar (scroll down once you get there). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was asked to what he attributed his success. He said early on in his career he decided he would work on writing one new joke each day. By doing this, he would hone his craft. Each day that he did this he would mark a big red X on his calendar. After a while, the string of red X’s encouraged and motivated him. And he didn’t want to break the chain. My guess is, after about 66 days, he didn’t even have to think about it. He just did it. The 66-day calendar is a place to mark your X’s.

So that’s it. Go develop a new habit.

Questions for reflection:

What habit would you like to break?

How can Duhigg’s chart or approach help you to deconstruct and rework that habit?

What new habit would you like to start?

How would your life be different if you did?

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