Humans are creatures of habit. Pretty much everything we do each day we do ‘on autopilot’, meaning it has become a habit. Habits are a great way for the brain to save on processing power and thus conserve energy. You can probably recall the time when you first learned something new (like driving a car or creating a spreadsheet) and how much effort that took. Today, you can do it ‘with your eyes closed’. It has become a habit, a routine.

As psychologists have discovered in recent years, the shortcuts our brain take are often a double-edged sword. Habits are very efficient and create the spare mental capacity to say, drive and talk at the same time. Just imagine how difficult your day would be if you had to think about everything you do – from brushing your teeth to cooking dinner. So there is clearly a huge benefit to running on autopilot. On the flip side, the cost is that it’s easy to create and adopt bad habits. Like eating junk food on the run. Or checking your mobile phone every time it chimes with a Facebook update. Or whatever else might be bugging you.

Given that it is so easy to create and run a routine, how hard is it to change a habit? Can it be done for habits that are deeply ingrained? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding YES, changing habits is actually not that hard. But only if you go about it in the right way. To know how to do that, we first need to understand how a habit works.

A habit consists of just four elements:

  1. The trigger or cue that starts it
  2. The routine
  3. The reward, and
  4. The belief

In order to change any habit, you need to discover the cue, the reward and the belief. Take brushing your teeth in the morning. The cue is probably related to going up to the wash basin in your bathroom. The reward, believe or not, is the fresh feeling the foaming agent in the toothpaste creates in your mouth. It makes your mouth and teeth feel ‘clean’. Before foaming agent was added to toothpaste in the 1920s, less than 10% of people brushed their teeth. The belief is probably something around ‘brushing your teeth will keep them healthy and avoid the dentist’.

Once you know the cue, reward and belief, you can change the habit. All you need to do is keep the cue and reward and replace the routine with a new one. This is of vital importance, unless you keep the cue and reward, you will not be successful in changing the habit (unless you eliminate the cue from your life). In addition you need to create a new belief that supports the new routine and that re-establishes a coherent image of yourself. Again, for most habits you will not be successful unless you decide to create a new belief that supports the changed routine. Please notice that the complexity of the routine is completely irrelevant to this process – you can replace a very complex routine with something deceptively simple!

Let’s go through a practical example at work. You believe your boss lacks integrity and every time you speak to him you treat him with disdain. This is not a very useful habit, as you are the one with the negative feelings and all your boss will feel is that you don’t like him (but not why or how to create a better relationship). Discovering the cue is very easy in this case – simply being in the vicinity of your boss will be enough. But what might the reward be? Let’s assume it is something you say to yourself about being better than him or feeling self-righteous. The underlying belief is that you are always in integrity and people who can’t manage to do that can’t be trusted.

You have now realised that you have never had a manager who lives up to your standards of integrity and also that you haven’t had a promotion in 10 years, so maybe it’s time to change the habit. The first thing to do here is to examine the validity of your belief. It is unreasonable to expect that a person in a managerial position can always act in line with their stated values and beliefs. Organisations demand conformity and managers are forced to make and defend decisions that violate their own values and beliefs. Only by not putting yourself into a position of responsibility have you been able to maintain an ‘absolute’ standard for integrity. Now that you want a promotion, it’s prudent to accept that not all decisions can go your way.

Once you have found a way of changing your belief, you can go about changing the routine. That will require you to pay active attention to how you respond to the cue, in the moment. Instead of running the old routine, you catch the trigger and say to yourself ‘He hasn’t done anything out of integrity since I last saw him, it’s OK to be nice’. Then you reward yourself for the new behaviour by feeling good about your (new) self and feeling self-righteous. So cue and reward stay the same, but your behaviour (the routine) changes and you have adopted a new belief to make that (new) behaviour aligned with your self-image.

Not all habits have cues and rewards that are that easy to identify. In many instances it might take a couple of weeks before you have nailed the exact cue or the true nature of the reward. This may require you to experiment with different hypotheses in order to distinguish between the various possibilities – e.g. are you going for coffee to socialise or to get away from your desk or to get a caffeine boost? To test those out, you could buy water instead of coffee or you could go on your own instead of inviting colleagues along and then check inside if the craving has been satisfied anyway. The reward will usually be a feeling, so unless you are prepared to look inside, you are not going to find it. Equally, you need to be honest with yourself about the supporting belief. It won’t always be pretty, but you don’t have to tell anyone, so it’s ok.

If you are having trouble identifying the exact cue, here is a handy tip. All cues fall into one of just 5 categories – location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. They are all easy to record on a notepad or your phone if you want to get serious about changing a habit.

How long does this process of establishing a new habit take? Not very long at all, once you have the right trigger and reward and have found a new belief, changing the routine literally takes a few weeks (if the trigger is frequent enough). All you need is a plan for what your are going to do instead of the old routine. In addition, for infrequent triggers it would help if you can boost the frequency whilst you are planning to change the routine, i.e. go and see your manager every day for a few weeks! This may feel painful, but actually shortens the process and increases the likelihood of success.

Of course there are habits that are more difficult to change. If the reward is physiological, such as with addictive substances, then designing an alternative routine alone cannot generate the same effect. It will involve delving deeper into the reward and belief system. Fortunately, that still leaves an awful lot of habits that you can change quite simply and benefit from changing today.