Ready to dissect your habits? Grab a scalpel…

As you know, my goal is to create a lifestyle of healthy habits. I want my conscious AND unconscious actions to be good for me, without even trying! This is the beauty of a habit, of course. It’s a behavior or act that we do without thinking…automatic! Of course, this is also the challenge of a habit, especially those that are less-than-healthy.

I decided that I needed to understand more, then, about this organism we call a habit. What makes it tick? What’s going on under the hood? I needed to cut it open and dissect it…but preferably without having to attend medical school. Fortunately, a reporter named Charles Duhigg wrote what I like to call Judy’s Book of Habits for Dummies. The real title is The Power of Habit: Why we Do What we Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012).

Habits (like any good movie trilogy) Have 3 Parts
Charles explained in words even I could understand that all habits have 3 parts (see – already this is good. Three is a nice small number I can work with!)

  1. The Trigger
  2. The Behavior
  3. The Reward

Let me demonstrate by using a habit we (hopefully) all share: brushing your teeth.

When Teeth (and not children) were Spoiled Rotten
In the early 1900’s, only 7% of American households owned a toothbrush (I’m assuming marriages were still arranged.) When the government began drafting soldiers for WW I, so many of the recruits had rotting teeth, officials declared it a national security risk! Enter famed marketing guru Claude C. Hopkins.

Claude was able to capitalize on a system that we only recently proved scientifically. Namely, in order to get people to develop the habit of brushing their teeth, they needed a trigger or cue, and they needed a reward. Fortunately for garlic lovers everywhere, he created both and by WW II over 50% of Americans were cleansing their palates! So, let’s look at what he developed:

  1. The trigger. After researching dental data until his eyes swam, Claude landed on a symptom common to every human being – the film that coats our teeth after eating anything. Claude simply recommended that people run their tongue over their teeth when they wake up in the morning. They did, and promptly felt disgusted (although it had been there every other day of their lives.)
  2. The Behavior. He instructed them to immediately brush their teeth with Pepsodent (the brand he was hired to sell, of course!) and then run their tongue over their teeth again.
  3. The Reward. Their teeth felt clean! Interestingly, Claude’s initial promised reward was “a beautiful smile.” However, polls and research discovered the desired reward these people got was that tingling sensation on their gums and minty breath! This craving became so strong that all toothpastes going forward were required to include the chemical that causes the tingling (which is actually a mild and harmless skin irritation).

Obviously, Claude’s method worked. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a household without a toothbrush for every occupant! Hotels even stock up on them because a traveler can get by without a hairbrush, but if they leave their toothbrush at home, they are calling the front desk! So, how do we apply this to the healthy habits we want to create?

Here’s Your Homework! Start by looking at the habits you already have today, and find their triggers! Start with something easy – do you look both ways when you cross the street? Do you automatically turn on the radio when you get in the car? This may be a little bit tricky because, after all, they are habits, which means you aren’t thinking about them. But find one – any one – even a bad habit! Then, grab your scalpel…

Dissecting a Habit.
One method is to use this equation (wow – I never thought I’d use the word “equation” once I left Algebra):

“As a general rule, whenever I (fill in the event), I (fill in the habit). I like doing this because (fill in the reward).”

 Let’s try this with the habits I listed above:

  1. As a general rule, whenever I need to cross a street designed for cars, I look both ways before I step one foot out. I like doing this because getting squished by the car like a bug would ruin my day.
    • Trigger – crossing the street
    • Habit – look both ways
    • Reward – feeling safe (i.e. not squished like a bug)
  2. As a general rule, whenever I drive my car, I listen to the radio. I like doing this because I can pretend I’m a famous rockstar.
    • Trigger – driving the car
    • Habit – listening to the radio
    • Reward – fun (i.e. rockstar dream achieved…uh, kinda)

You get the picture. So, go find your triggers!! And if you can find some around food, sleep, worship and exercise, all the better! But wait….there’s more??? 

WHY, You ASK?  Ah, I see you are an inquisitive type that wonders now why it’s so darned important to find the trigger anyway. Well, I will reveal more about that next week, but let me at least give you a teaser that not even Claude knew: the best way to change a habit is leave the trigger and the reward IN TACT! Yep, you read that correctly! In my next article, we will put down our scalpels, pick up our Big Bang Theory microscopes, and take the Magic School Bus to the part of our brain where habits are seared like the barbeque lines on a good steak!


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