I’ve never been much for routines. I like to think of myself as spontaneous and impulsive, always ready to try something new. But since reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I’ve started thinking more seriously about the few habits and routines I have incorporated into my life, almost without thinking. Duhigg’s definition of a habit is as follows:
The habit loop starts with a cue, which is then followed by an almost automatic action or routine, which is reinforced by a reward and the cycle is ready to begin again.
Duhigg’s suggests that we can develop the habits and routines that help us rather than hinder us by modifying the habits we already have — by playing with that automatic action or routine and the reward that immediately follows.
There’s one area in which I believe I have already done this, albeit unconsciously. I’ve always been a nail-biter. My mother tried all manner of techniques on me, from taping my nails, to painting them with bitter substances. Nothing really worked, and I’d been fairly resigned to trying and failing to stop biting my nails for years now. Other women had strong healthy manicured nails — mine always looked bedraggled. On a whim, I decided to get a manicure. Now, this was a technique that my mom had tried in the past, but as a teenager I was supremely unconcerned with things like how my nails looked, so it had little effect.
This time was different. As soon as I painted my nails, my little habit loop changed subtly. I would look down at my nails and instead of seeing a bare bitable expanse, I saw my neat, colorful, manicured fingers. I started to admire them, which in itself was my “reward”. As long as I kept my nails manicured, I could let my nails grow. Of course, since I couldn’t paint with my left hand, I need to go to a nail salon to get my nails done, which makes this an expensive new routine – still it’s worth it to see my nails actually growing!
I realized that I have other habits that I could play with:
- Every morning when I get to work, I IM a few friends and we head down to the cafeteria for a free cup of coffee, always iced in my case. Duhigg suggests that we think about what we actually get from the habit and analyze whether we could get those things in different, perhaps preferable, ways. I think I get two things from this habit — the coffee itself (it’s refreshing plus it has caffeine) and the few minutes of friendly interactions with others. I like this habit — I’m fine with coffee and I think social interactions should be encouraged.
- I brush my teeth morning and night. Duhigg suggests tacking on other habits to already established ones. I currently need to apply a topical ointment as often as possible, but often forget. I decided to just do it immediately after brushing, and the refreshing tingle of freshly brushed teeth serves as my reminder.