Change Any Habit Painlessly: 6 Tips

Almost everything you currently do... you can do even better. Here's how.

Want to change an old habit? You probably should: One study determined that over 40% of the "decisions" we make every day aren't really decisions.

They're habits.

Much of the time we don't really make decisions. We do what we've done before, and that makes us less productive, less effective, less healthy and fit—less everything—than we could be.

So what can we do? Change an old habit into a new habit.

While changing a habit isn't easy, it is simple—especially if you follow the process described by Charles Duhigg, the author of the bestselling book The Power of Habit. (Definitely worth a read, especially if you want to harness the power of habits to improve not just yourself but also your team or business.)

The key is to understand that you can't extinguish a bad habit, but you can change that habit—and still get the same "reward" you currently get from your old habit.

Here's how:

1. Redefine "must."

Think about your typical day. Very little of what you think you "have" to do actually must be done that way.

Think you need that cup of coffee? You don't. Somewhere along the line you started drinking coffee, decided you like it, decided you liked the caffeine kick... and now it's an "indispensable" habit. But it's not—you do need to drink liquids but you don't need to drink coffee. (Don't feel bad; I have a huge Diet Mountain Dew habit.)

The same is true with almost everything you do during your workday. Maybe you call distribution to "check in" every day even though you already get incredibly detailed reports. Maybe you send an email instead of making a call when you're afraid of a confrontation. Everything you do is based on some amount of reasoning... but how often is what you're doing the best way to accomplish the goal?

Rarely, if you're like the average person—otherwise we'd all be extremely healthy, wealthy, and wise.

"Must" is a feeling that results from a habit. The only way to change a habit is to first decide that "must" can actually be negotiated or even eliminated.

As an example, let's assume your habit is to check your email first thing. You want to change that habit because you tend to get bogged down by a flood of correspondence and you would prefer to hit your workday running in a different direction.

2. Determine the cue.

Every habit is based on a simple loop: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the trigger that, based on some craving, shifts your brain into autopilot and initiates the routine.

Since your habit is to check your email first, you may be craving a sense of immediate control, to know what fires may have started, what issues may have popped up, or even what good things occurred overnight. Or you may be craving a reconnection with employees, customers, or even friends.

Whenever you feel an urge for a habit, that urge is the cue.

3. Determine the routine.

The routine is easy to determine. Your routine is the manifestation of the habit. It's the cookie at break time or the Web surfing at lunch or, in this case, checking email right away.

4. Determine the reward.

The reward isn't always so easy to determine. Maybe the reward you get from your habit is a feeling of control. Maybe it's an, "Oh good... nothing awful happened overnight," feeling of relief. Maybe it's the, "I'm the captain of my universe and it feels good to mobilize the troops," feeling you get from firing off a bunch of emails to your staff.

Think about what craving your habit is really satisfying. Going to the break room for a cup of coffee might not really be satisfying a coffee urge; what you really may be craving is the chance to hang out with other people and getting coffee is just an excuse.

Work hard to identify the reward, because to change a habit the reward has to stay the same. You won't deny yourself the reward—you'll just make the way you get that reward a lot more productive or positive..

5. Change the routine.

Now that you know your cue and your reward, "all" you have to do is insert a new routine—one that is triggered by your cue and that also satisfies your current reward.

Say you check email right away because of an urge to immediately know about any overnight disasters... but you also don't want to get bogged down by all the less than critical emails.

Simply find another way to accomplish your status check. Walk the floor instead. Make a couple quick phone calls. Check in with key employees. Get your status-check fix the old-fashioned way: in person.

Of course that doesn't work if you manage remote employees. In that case, you could do what a friend does. He set up a separate email account, critical@hiscompanyname.com. Employees only send emails to that account if an issue is truly an emergency. He checks that account when he gets to work (and a bunch of times at night, since he's admittedly a worrier) and saves his "regular" email for later in the morning.

6. Write it down.

According to Duhigg, studies show that the easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan. The format is simple:

When (cue), I will (routine) because it provides me with (reward).

In this example, the plan is:

When I get to work, I will check in with key employees first because that lets me take care of any urgent issues right away.

Do that enough times, and eventually your new habit will be automatic—and you'll be more productive.

Then move on to another habit!

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