As I’ve been researching how people purposefully change, I’ve been focused on trying to understand their habits. Habits, are those actions where we have a trigger or cue, engage in a behavior or action, and are rewarded for that behavior, thus establishing a stronger connection and the response becomes automatic.
Habits have an element of craving associated with them. The habit behavior satisfies that craving. This is why habits are such powerful drivers of behavior.
What is really powerful about habits (for those of us who think about these things) is that we often don’t even realize that they are working on us.
They act at a subconscious level.
Take salt for an example. By most measures, Americans intake more salt than our bodies require – in some instances, way more. We don’t really need to add salt to most of our meals; particularly to those meals that are processed or purchased at a restaurant. Yet, many of us are in the habit of asking “please pass the salt” before we even taste our food. The habit of putting salt on our food has become automatic and we don’t even realize that we are doing it.
It is this unconscious power that is so enticing when we are thinking about how people change. If we can harness these habits and steer them in the right direction, then our change efforts are significantly more likely to be achieved. If we are doing the right behaviors, whether that be exercising, brushing our teeth, meditating, journaling our thoughts or any number of other things, we are more likely to be successful.
The problem is that habits for behaviors that take more effort and focus are not as easy to form – and in some instances, may never be able to be formed.
That is where routines come into play.
Routines are those activities that we do regularly – again, often preceded by a cue. The difference from habits is that routines never get to that subconscious level. We always need to consciously focus on our routines.
In my work on purposeful change, I had not focused on routines as much as habits. Or I conflated the two – combining them into one larger concept.
Routines are the hard stuff that we all know have to be done – but we often failed at.
Routines are getting up at 5:30 AM to get to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Routines are the dedicating the first hour of work to writing your book. Routines are practicing your piano for 30 minutes every day.
We don’t automatically do these things.
We have to work at routines. There is no subconscious response to a cue – instead, there is a need to focus on doing them. The cue might trigger our thought process, but we actually have to make a conscious decision to say “yes” to starting the behavior.
Thus in my examination of what makes purposeful change more likely, I had not put too much thought into these. Yes, routines were important, but we already knew that. They weren’t a “hack” that would make change easier. They were the hard work that you had to do.
These were the plans that we put in place to make a change. These were the commitments that we would make – like I’m going to go to the gym three times a week or I’m going to write for an hour each day to get my book done.
Routines were the mundane, boring stuff.
But now I’m thinking that was too short-sighted. That real change happens when you not only harness your habits but when you ratchet-up your routines.
One piece of that ratcheting is to understand how you can make routines more like habits or at least think about them like habits.
How do we get the “craving” to do a routine such that it overcomes any of the excuses we would typically find to “not do” the behavior.
Behavioral economics tells us that we make different decisions for our “future self” than we do for our “present self.” We make plans or believe that our “future self” will eat the salad with the fat free dressing – but when dinner time comes, our “present self” is tempted by the desire to have the tasty 1/2 lb bacon and blue cheese burger (yum!). Or the “future self” of the morning will get up early to go for a run, but the “present self” in the morning hits the snooze for another 10 minutes of sleep (3x).
We need to understand how to make that “present self” temptation pale in comparison to the craving of the routine.
This is the “hack” that I think we need.
Purposeful change happens best when we can circle the wagons and get all of our resources working together to facilitate that change. We know that habits are great – when we can tap into them. We know social support is key. That enabling our environment can help (see here for more information on the 6-steps to making change happen)
Routines are also important and we need to become better at making sure that we stick with them and that they become more habit like. That they are not those actions that we detest, but ones that help satisfy a craving that we have.
Over the next couple of months, I will be focusing on this. If you have stories about how you have made routines work for you – please let me know. I would love to find out what is possible.
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