How do you turn an action into a habit? 

How do you turn an action into a habit? 
Cambiare abitudini

Practical examples from Charles Duhigg’s model.

It is likely that at some point in your life you will want to change certain aspects of the way you do things. This can apply to the personal as well as the professional sphere.

Understanding how our brain works to modify behaviour is a good start to give ourselves the best chance of success in changing habits we no longer like or in learning new ones.

What are habits?

Habits are automatic behaviours that enable us to do much more than if we had to think about everything we do. About 70 per cent of what we do is automated this way.

Some time ago I heard an audio of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg and there are a couple of concepts from his work that I would like to share with you.

Duhigg says:

“Habits are the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing every day.”

The brain is as if it puts itself on autopilot and keeps repeating that action without really paying attention to it.

The scientific reason is that the brain decides that that action is secondary and therefore does not need full attention and goes into automatic mode to save energy.

First of all, it is important to distinguish between the intention to adopt a new habit or achieve a goal and the plan to do so. Every year, around the first of January, most of us have very clear intentions, but rather vague plans.

Focusing on creating a new habit forms new neural networks in the brain and offers the best chance of rooting the behaviour as a habit.

Charles Duhigg proposes a three-step process for creating or changing habits; the process involves developing a plan that contains a cue, a routine and a reward.

What is the bottom line? First, be clear what habit we want to change

Second, identify what is the cue that starts us off automatically, because it is from there that we must consciously change the habit.

An example from the professional sphere might be:

1. Your cue

Habits are triggered by cues, i.e. signals that tell us to act in a certain way. To create a new habit, we must also create a cue: something that tells us to take the next step. Working on the cue will help us create or break a habit.

For example, you want to get more in touch with the team.

You may decide to spend 10 minutes every morning walking around the office, instead of sitting down at your desk immediately to write your first e-mails.

Your cue could be to hang up your jacket: that’s when you start your walk.

Identifying a good cue can be crucial.

One method that has proven effective is to create ‘chains of behaviour’ using the routines you are practising now instead of trying to counteract them. (Hanging up your jacket is your current behaviour, which is now linked to the new behaviour of walking and talking to the team).

Experiment with different cues until you find the one, or more than one, that works for you.


2. The routine

Define your steps: the actions you are trying to turn into a habit.

In the early days you may inadvertently schedule meetings or other appointments in the time frame you have decided to devote to your new habit. The advice is to block this time in your diary to avoid distractions.

Change your narrative!

If your thought has been “I will have more informal conversations with the team”, change it to: “If I walk around the office at least three mornings a week, then I will talk to the team informally”. A whole different effect, isn’t it?


3.The reward

This aspect is important for turning the new behaviour into a habit. And it is probably why simple repetition does not work.

Rewards must have certain fundamental characteristics; the more the cue also triggers the desire for the reward, the more likely it is that the new behaviour will be incorporated.

The reward linked to a greater connection with the team could be a better understanding of what is happening in the office and a greater sense of management. The anticipation of this sense of togetherness could be the element that maintains the new routine.

As is often the case, the basis for change is willpower, persistence and conviction, fundamental building blocks for reshaping what we don’t like about ourselves and transforming into the best version of ourselves.

See why I insist? It always comes back to self-awareness!


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