In 1993, Eugene Pauly, a southern California resident, was urgently rushed to the hospital. Suffering from violent stomach pains and a soaring 105 degree temperature, Mr. Pauly eventually slipped into a coma for 10 days.
After waking, the doctors informed him that the medial temporal lobe of his brain had been decimated by viral encephalitis, resulting in severe short-term memory loss. Due to the malady, Eugene would no longer able to retain new information for more than a minute, though his memory of 30 years prior would still be perfectly functional.
As Eugene and his wife, Beverly, started to settle into their new life, dealing with his short-term memory loss and the incredible hardships that result because of it, they began a new daily routine of walking around the neighborhood block each morning.
One day Beverly went to find and prepare Eugene for their morning walk, but he had disappeared. She was frantic and immediately set out to find him. Where could he have gone? This man who couldn’t recall the names of their grandchildren or even remember where the kitchen was in their own home…
Beverly couldn’t find Eugene, though she searched and called his name. Fortunately, she didn’t have to. Fifteen minutes later, Eugene returned home having taken the walk all by himself.
In doing so, he proved something researchers and scientists had only been able to theorize about up until that point: habits and memory operate independently of one another.
And that’s what we want to talk about today: habits. We’ll draw heavily from Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” as well as a few other trusted resources to illustrate the science behind how habits are built, how you can use this knowledge to build better, more productive habits, and specific habits you can attain to help you accelerate your career.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Your Brain on Habit
Have you ever sat down at your desk in the morning and realized that you don’t remember the drive to work at all? Or stood in the shower trying to recollect if you’ve already washed your hair or not? The shampoo bottle is open and you can feel the bubbles starting to stream down your face, you just can’t seem to recall the process at all…
Researchers estimate that as much as 40% to 45% of the decisions we make every day really aren’t decisions at all; they’re habits. And during these habits, brain activity drops significantly. That’s why we can complete an activity and simply “forget” what we’ve done a moment later.
That’s also why Eugene was able to complete his morning walk, though, he suffered from severe short-term memory loss. The human brain is constantly looking for ways to conserve energy. This results in the “chunking” of activities into automatic routines that can be completed on autopilot; unassisted by conscious memory.
Understanding this fact is the first step towards mastering your habits. And when you’ve mastered them, you’ll be able to accelerate your career and achieve the success you’re working towards.
The Habit Loop
In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg outlines the three components of every habit:
The Cue – The cue is the trigger for a specific behavior to start
The Routine – The routine is the specific behavior itself, and
The Reward – The reward is what helps my brain remember the pattern for the future.
Most people focus on the routine when they talk about habits, but the cue and the reward are actually more crucial to the way habits function.
The Loop In Action
Ann Graybiel, a noted neurologist at MIT, has conducted many experiments on rats, while cataloging the activity that happens inside their brains. One such experiment involves inserting a rat inside a simple maze with a piece of chocolate at the end.
Despite sending hundreds rats through the maze 150 times each, the initial response from each animal is always the same: the rats will slowly wander up and down, see the chocolate and turn the other way, continue studying their environment…
Ultimately, it takes each rat an average of 13 minutes to finally eat the chocolate. But as the rats are re-inserted into the maze again and again, their completion time shrinks dramatically.
Now, why are we talking about rats? Because these rats perfectly illustrate the power of habits.
When Doctor Graybiel studied the neurological activity happening inside each animals brain, she found that it shrunk each time the rat was again inserted into the maze. The more accustomed a rat becomes to finding the chocolate, the less it actually thinks about the activity of running through the maze.
The human brain works the same way. When we develop habits, our brain begins to “turn off” and automatic responses take over. There is a cue that signals to the brain that the habit is starting. Then there is the routine, which is the actual habit. Finally, there is the reward which our brain registers as pleasurable and signals to our subconscious minds to continue the habit.
How to Build Better Habits
Fascinating, right? But you’re not here to learn about neurology or rats. Let’s discuss how you can harness these scientific findings to build better habits and achieve your goals!
Establish a Cue
We’ve explored the three components of every habit: cue, routine, reward. And if every habit begins with a cue, then it makes sense that the first step in developing better habits is to establish a specific cue that will trigger a desired routine.
For example, let’s say you’re interested in beginning a daily exercise regimen. A potential cue could be placing your athletic shoes by your bed each night. When you wake up the following morning and see them, your mind will automatically begin to think, “it’s time to go workout now.”
For whatever habit you wish to start, be sure to consistently establish a cue.
Having a cue, a reminder to do something, is great. But remember, habits aren’t related to memory. We’re not trying to develop better memories, but automatic responses. This is why the reward is so crucial.
Let’s return to our daily exercise example for just a moment. Every morning you wake up, see your running shoes (the cue) by your bed and go exercise. As a reward, you decided to eat a small piece of chocolate after every completed workout.
By giving yourself a reward you genuinely enjoy after completing a specific routine, you’ll begin to train your brain to want to complete the routine. Once the habit has been ingrained, you may not even need the original reward anymore!
Oftentimes, when we think about developing better habits, we begin with the goal of making some drastic change to our lives. We want to market our business with a company blog so we decide to get in the habit of blogging every day. Or we read that Richard Branson exercises each morning before work so we decide we’ll do the same.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to make gigantic life changes like these in one fell swoop. One trick to creating better habits that last is starting small. Make your new habit so easy you can’t fail!
For instance, instead of committing to exercise each morning like Richard Branson, what if you decided to exercise just once a week? That shouldn’t be too difficult, right? And in time you can increase the frequency of your workout till you’re exercising daily.
Identify “Keystone Habits”
According to Duhigg, a keystone habit is a habit that, when formed, will begin to positively affect numerous aspects of your work and life. For example, many people find that daily exercise also helps them eat healthier, increase productivity at work, sleep better and more.
Unfortunately, science has not yet uncovered a full-proof way to find keystone habits. But simple trial and error can get the job done in a pinch.
Analyze your life and and try to pinpoint certain behaviors that seem to have an overall positive effect on your day and wellbeing. Perhaps eating breakfast with your family before you all head your separate ways really lifts your spirits and in turn, you’re more amiable with customers, which increases sales and then…
You see how one habit can transform your entire life in multiple ways? Find your keystone habits and reap the rewards.
Overcoming Old Habits
We all have habits we’d love to break. Things we know aren’t good for us or are holding us back in some way. But sometimes overcoming these patterns seems impossible. Fortunately, we can use what we’ve learned about building new, better habits to also overcome old ones.
The first step is to stop constantly reminding yourself of the thing you’re trying to resist. If you want to break the habit of eating a handful of cookies before bed, don’t allow yourself to think about the pack of Oreo’s currently sitting in your pantry.
Next, you need to understand your cues. Remember, cues are the reminders that trigger habits. Identify the things that prompt an undesirable behavior. Then decide beforehand what your response to that cue will be.
For instance, maybe you discover you’re eating cookies at night because you’re hungry (cue.) It’s been a few hours since dinner and your stomach begins to growl so you raid the pantry for a quick bite to eat (routine.)
Now that you have this understanding, you can predetermine a different, positive response to this situation such as grabbing a bag of apple slices from the fridge instead. This satisfies your hunger (reward) without consuming unwanted calories.
Do you see how premeditating your cues and rewards can help you change even the strongest of bad habits?
Habits Worth Building
So far we’ve talked a lot about the science behind habits and how to both build and overcome them. Now, let’s quickly dive into a few specific habits you may want to consider adopting.
Wake Up Earlier
You don’t have to look very hard to find a correlation between early risers and success. Many of today’s leaders are adamant about rising before the sun including Apple CEO, Tim Cook; Shark Tank investor, Kevin O’Leary; and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
Waking up before the rest of the world will allow you to work with less distractions, a constant battle in today’s digital world. Studies also show that early risers are generally more productive, optimistic and efficient.
We’ve mentioned exercise a few different times throughout this post. That’s because regular exercise is so beneficial. Obviously it will help you improve your health, lose weight, etc. But an active lifestyle has also been known to increase alertness and productivity, reduce stress and help participants sleep better at night.
In regard to how he became so successful, famed investor Warren Buffett once said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
If there is one habit that seems almost universally practiced by the world’s top producers, it’s this one. But it’s important to note that reading “just anything” won’t necessarily get you where you want to go.
Rather, read for self-improvement, education and success rather than entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with reading novels. But unless you’re working to become a best selling author, those books probably won’t aid you in your quest to accelerate your career.
Studies over the last few years have proven that multitasking actually decreases your levels of productivity. We know this, but we still can’t help but check email during team meetings, peruse the web while we watch TV and listen to music while we cook dinner.
Consider developing the habit of monotasking: the act of removing distractions and focusing on one task at a time.
Fostering the habit of organization can do wonders for your career. Lists, daily goal charts and company vision meetings all play a key role in helping you stay organized. But it doesn’t stop there. Many experts also suggest maintaining an organized, un-cluttered work space.
As a goal oriented professional, it’s easy to overwork yourself — often without even realizing it. But the most successful people make a habit of enjoying things outside the office. They take up hobbies, go on vacation, relax with people they love.
Burnout is real and potentially very dangerous. So make it a habit to step away, relax and enjoy life. You’ll be glad you did.
Now It’s Your Turn
We’ve learned a lot about the power of habits since 1993 and Eugene Pauly’s struggle with short-term memory loss. We now know that memory and habit are unrelated. We also know that of the three habit components — cue, behavior and reward — the cue and reward play a much more significant role.
Use the information and practical tips in this article to harness the power of habit and accelerate your career. By establishing various cues that trigger specific behaviors and then rewarding yourself for successfully carrying out those actions, you’ll be able to develop desirable habits and achieve your goals much, much easier.
So now it’s your turn. What habits will you begin to build? Let us know in the comments!