Vlad Sobol

Books : The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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This post is about a book I recently read, namely The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

This is a great self-development book, and if you have time, you should definitely read it. Below you'll find my summary of what I learned from the book.

Motivation to change habits

The most surprising thing I learned from the book is that habits constitute far greater portion of my life than I thought. The habits are not that easy to notice at first, it's like the air, you can't really see it, but it's all around us. And just like we care about the quality of the air, we should care about the quality of our habits. Everything is a habit - how we talk to our friends, our posture, how we eat, how we excercise, how we think. We are responsible for these habits. These habits may be annoying for people around you, or may be damaging your health. Other habits may make you healthier, smarter, more successful, all without much effort from you once you acquire them.

Structure of habits

To improve the our habits, we must first understand what these habits are. All habits have 3 parts: cue, action, and reward.

  • Cue is the trigger. Boredom often serves as a cue for many of our habbits.

  • Action is how we react to that trigger. For boredom that may be browsing facebook or eating.

  • Reward is what we get after the action. Distraction, satisfaction, and relaxation are examples of rewards.

The master plan

Step 1 : Identify the habit

What do we do with this information? We try to identify our habits and dissect them into the cue, action, and reward.

At this step I realised I had a habit of aimlessly browsing the internet.

I would be listening to some lecture and next moment get spaced out on facebook. 10 minutes later I would realise I should've been listening, but it's too late, I don't understand a thing written on the blackboard.

Also, when doing assignments, I would switch to facebook when the progress stopped and I needed to think about what to do next. It was like my brain was trying to avoid thinking, and it would rather scroll through memes.

This was so bad that I wasn't even doing it consciously. The fingers would open facebook automatically, and I had no control of it.

What was the cue, action and reward?

  • Cue - boredom, tiredness from studying, reluctance to think.

  • Action - open facebook/reddit/news.

  • Reward - new useless but interesting information which serves as a distraction and postpones working and thinking.

Step 2 : Change the action

The next step is changing the action. The cues are quite hard to avoid at times, while actions can be changed relatively easily, so that's what we'll do. Returning to my facebook addiction, I tried to open Anki (a great app for learning stuff) every time I felt bored during a lecture. This helped - maybe I wasn't listening to the lecture, but at least I wasn't wasting my time. Also, Anki doesn't consume as much time as the lecture.

When at home, I started using pomodoro techinque. Basically, I work for 25 minutes, then for 5 minutes I do nothing. This helps with back pain as well - if you get up for these 5 minutes, you don't damage your back with sitting as much.

Step 3 : Identify the cues

The next thing to do is to identify the moments when the craving comes. You may even want to write down situations when you get the craving.

Facebook craving was present basically all the time, so it was quite difficult.

I decided to try to avoid the cues. During a lecture, I would remove my phone into my backpack so that I don't unconsciously open facebook every time. Also, I logged out of facebook on my phone and computer so that I don't get any notifications.

At home, I installed a block site plugin, and in order to open facebook or any other procrastination site I need to run a script that asks me about the reason why I want to go to blocked sites and then opens a clean copy of chrome without plugins. This technique works because you have to consciously think about why you're opening facebook, and I almost never consciously want to waste my time on facebook.

Here's the script for the curious:

//The python script just reads my excuse and later appends it to the log file:
#!/usr/bin/env python3

from subprocess import Popen, PIPE, check_output
import sys
from datetime import datetime
import os

file_path = os.path.expanduser('~/Documents/anti_procrastination_log')

def runCommand(command):
    return check_output(command, shell = True).decode(encoding = 'utf-8')

if __name__ == "__main__":
    if len(sys.argv) < 2:
        exit(0)

    if sys.argv[1] == 'start':
        excuse = input('your excuse?\n')
        out = '{0} : opened because "{1}"\n'.format(str(datetime.now()), excuse)
        print(out)
        with open(file_path, 'a') as f:
            f.write(out)
    elif sys.argv[1] == 'end':
        out = '{0} : end of session\n\n'.format(str(datetime.now()))
        print(out)
        with open(file_path, 'a') as f:
            f.write(out)

And here is the bash alias that I use to run the script and to start chromium without plugins.


alias chrnex="chrome_launcher.py start && chromium --new-window --user-data-dir=/tmp/temp-profile --disable-extensions && chrome_launcher.py end;"

Step 4 : Make a plan for the moment when the craving attacks

There is one great trick - it's easier to make yourself do something if you think in advance of possible obstacles and distractions and decide how you're going to act. Basically, I decided that when I feel bored during a lecture I will open Anki and learn stuff, and I when I get bored or tired at home, I'll get up and walk around, maybe do some push ups.

Anther example may be 'I will still go for a jog even if I feel terribly sleepy.' You may even want to rehearse getting out of bed and putting on your jogging clothes.

This works because you don't waste your energy on deciding whether to give in to the temptation or not. Thinking wastes your energy, and when the craving strucks your energy is quite low already. If you decide on your course of action in advance, you don't have to decide, you already have planned everything.

It's hard, but it gets better

Changing habits is very hard, at first the craving may be unbearable, changing some standard behaviour that is deeply ingrained into your brain can't be easy. But it is possible, you just need some determination. Every time you resist the craving you get closer to automating the behaviour. Something that is extremely hard right now may become so easy you won't even be thinking about it. That's why habits are so important - you can automatically do things that usually require crazy self-discipline. And that extra energy you get can go into anything you want.

Not scrolling through facebook was hard at first, but now I don't get distracted so much, I don't waste so much time, and my phone lasts much longer on a single charge. And most importantly, changing this one small habit gives me confidence to continue working on myself.

The last but not the least: change can become a habit

In his book, Charles Duhigg speaks about so-called keystone habits. These habits are the hardest to get rid of, but once you get them out of your head, they open space for so much more.

Getting rid of any habit makes changing the next one much easier. Changing just one thing, like starting running for 10 minutes every day may be the first step to changing your life. Once you change one thing, you start believing you can change, your desire to change gorws, you feel control over your life, you gain confidence that you can mould your life into any shape you desire.

So get up and start doing something - excercise, give up smoking, learn another language for 25 minutes a day. Choose whatever you like, even the smallest thing would do.

"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It's also important to note that changing too many things at once may be too hard. Make a list, and do them one by one.

Another great trick is to track your habits every day - there are tons of apps for this. Basically, just make a list of what habits you're trying to acquire, and mark whether you succeded or not every day.

To wrap it up:

Habits are a great part of us, and changing them changes our lives.

To change a habit:

  • Write down what the habit is (cues, actions, rewards).

  • Make a plan how to do the right thing when the cue comes.

  • Mark your progress every day.

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