“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” This is a quote from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. Here, he discusses the way in which habits are keystone foundations to build your physical and mental health. What happens, then, once you have a negative habit? And how does one go about changing it? Last week, we discussed how to form good habits through the lens of Duhigg’s book. This week, we’ll take the same core ideas and apply them to breaking - or rather, changing - negative habits.
The Power of Habit discusses three central themes that go into building and performing a habit: the trigger, the routine, and the reward. To recap, the trigger (or cue) serves as a reminder for you to begin the routine, which is another term for the habit, and finally, the reward is what you gain by performing it. These components serve as the basis to creating positive habits, but they can also provide ways to change your negative ones as well.
To examine this theme more closely, let’s look at an example. A common problem that is becoming increasingly common today is “screen addiction”. Screen addiction can come in many forms, like playing mobile games or scrolling through social media for hours on end. Though phones can serve as a positive and convenient way to distract yourself, it can also lead to people unintentionally doing a large portion of their own unnecessary activities. So, how do we change this negative habit into a productive one?
First, let’s examine the trigger. What gives you the urge to take out your phone? In most cases, your phone serves as a distraction. Perhaps you take it out simply because you’re bored, or maybe you use it to avoid another task like writing an essay or email. Sometimes, you might take out your phone in order to communicate with somebody or get information and get distracted through another app. In each case, pay attention to when you typically notice the urge to take out your phone and notice what you’re doing at the time.
What’s the routine? This is more straightforward. The routine is getting distracted by your phone, whether it be through games, social media, or watching videos. Though these by itself may not be harmful, doing it for hours every day can lead to several adverse effects.
Now, let’s examine the reward. What are the effects for phone usage? As mentioned before, phones provide a quick distraction. With the swipe of your finger, you have several sites and apps that can provide you endless entertainment. Despite this, phone usage can lead to adverse effects. Studies have shown that social media has led to decrease in self-esteem and emotion regulation. Being on your phone for extended periods of time can also lead to poor sleep quality and may distract from important errands that you may need to fulfill.
So, how should we go about stopping this? Stopping this habit may be difficult, according to Duigg. Now that we have identified the triggers and rewards, we can identify different routines that could better suit them.
For example, if your trigger for looking at your phone is boredom, come up with another activity to fill the time. Maybe you could work on a hobby, like reading a book or doing a craft. Perhaps you get out your phone as a way of procrastination. You could change this habit into something into more productive, like getting out the materials you need to perform the task or writing down a to-do list for the day. Perhaps you get your phone out and notice yourself getting distracted. There are several things you could do at this point, like muting notifications or even putting a timer on your phone to remind yourself to get off at some point.
Screen addiction is an example of a bad habit that you could change; however, there are several ways you can apply Duhigg’s techniques to your own life. Focus on the trigger, action, and reward as you identify areas of your life that you might want to improve. Next week, we’ll be looking at a specific type of habits: morning routines, and the science behind them.