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Book Review: The Power of Habit

All of our recent talk about bravery sparked my interest in habits. Is developing bravery really as simple as making it part of your daily routine? Could brave actions become as hardwired as brushing your teeth first thing in the morning, or looking both ways before you cross the street? I turned to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg to help me learn why we do what we do.

There are two main lessons to understand about habits, which the book dubs the Habit Loop and Golden Rule of Habit Change. The Habit Loop is hardwired into our brain and consists of a cue, routine, and reward. What does this look like in daily life? For example, I found myself unwittingly creating a habit of stopping by a co-worker's office and taking a piece of candy from the jar she keeps on her desk for guests. We'd talk, and I'd enjoy the candy on my way back to my desk. The cue of needing to talk to this colleague set me into the routine of eating candy, regardless of whether I was hungry. The reward of sugar made it easier and easier to continue this habit. Before long, I wouldn't need a cue to suddenly want chocolate when she and I would talk!

If I did the math about how many calories I consume unnecessarily each week through this habit, I'll need to apply the Golden Rule to change my behavior. Unfortunately there is no set formula that will guarantee results, rather this principle is about the importance of awareness and trying to replace the old habit with a new, more intentional one. The Rule states that if you keep the initial cue, replace the routine, and keep the reward, change will eventually occur. The answer to the dilemma of how to stop eating candy during the work day isn't as simple as just stopping through sheer willpower. The neurological pathways of habit are so strong that a decision alone often isn't enough to change the routine. However, the routine can replaced.

Knowing how exactly to replace a habit takes self-reflection and experimentation. Usually it's not something that happens overnight. For example, for years I struggled to exercise consistently. I wanted the benefits of being more in shape and didn't want to buy larger clothes as my metabolism started to slow down. I tried exercising with aps or tv-based fitness programs, but never stuck with it more than a few times. I enjoyed cross-fit, but my ever-changing schedule made it hard for me to fit classes into my evenings. I decided to start small and set a goal that was both measurable but that still afforded me some flexibility. I challenged myself to run at least a marathon's worth of distance (26 miles) each month. I could take a day off here and there to accommodate my work schedule, and just doing a mile a day only took about 10 minutes (I'm slow!). That made it easy to incorporate into my daily schedule- no trips to the gym or special equipment needed other than the treadmill we had that was already collecting dust in our basement. At first, the habit was difficult to stick to. I got sick. I travelled. I had to plan when I would run to make sure I got my miles in for the month.

Eventually it got so easy that without thinking, I'd change into my workout clothes as soon as I got home and would knock out a mile or two before enjoying dinner. Not only did that behavior keep me from procrastinating, I found I actually ate less after working out and pushed to be done running quicker knowing I would get to eat. It was literally like dangling a steak in front of me while on the treadmill! In my first year of this behavior, I ran over 400 miles, which I never would have imagined I was capable of. At the end of each month I made it a habit to write down my mileage, which also felt good and reinforced the reward of my behavior. Now I'm consistently running 35-40 miles a month by increasing my mileage on certain days of the week.

So back to my initial question- is it possible to program your brain to take more risks? In short, yes. There just has to be a new routine and reward. That's what we're hoping to create through our #FearlessFriday posts on Facebook. By sharing your experience of bravery and receiving positive feedback from our Boss Lady network, it becomes motivating to keep taking action despite your fears.

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in starting a new habit or trying to break a troublesome routine. Taking time to reflect on your triggers and motivations will help set you up for success. And knowing how deeply our brain controls these patterns is important so you don't beat yourself up when you fail. The most important thing is understanding that these changes take time, and that you'll need to out-smart your own mind to implement behaviors that last.

Here are more resources if you're interested in developing new habits:

How Habits Work

The Habit Replacement Loop

Courage Is a Habit

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