Have you ever been driving to the mall, lost in thought, only to realize that you were making all the usual turns to go to work? I personally enjoy blaming the car for this, but obviously, our daily habit of driving to work is deeply entrenched in our minds. When I say “deeply entrenched,” I am speaking literally. The basal ganglia resides deep in our brains and controls automatic behaviors, like habits. While we might not give much thought to our daily habits, they can have enormous effects on our lives. Five minutes of strength training every day can build large muscles. Saving $20 a week comes to over $1,000 of savings in a year.
We think of habits as things that we make ourselves do, but they are so much more than that. Charles Duhigg explored the topic of habits in his book, “The Power of Habit.” Our habits are made up of three parts: a cue, an action, and a reward. For example, I might notice that it is 5:00 pm. This is my cue to start cooking dinner. I take action by making dinner. I am rewarded with delicious food for my family and if I’m lucky, I might get praise. “Mmm, this is good, mom!” This daily habit of cooking dinner has large implications in my life. Cooking at home means that my family is healthier, we save money by not dining out, and I am setting a good example for my kids.
Habits can be powerful tools for getting what you want, but if your actions don’t have cues and rewards, your habits may not stick. Let’s say that you want to build your French vocabulary this year. You have decided that you are going to spend 16 minutes every day watching two Dragonfly Video Flashcard lessons. This goes well for a couple of days, but then you forget to watch the lessons. You are missing a cue. Think of something that you already have a habit of doing. Maybe you have a daily afternoon snack. Link your foreign language building to your snack. Put the DVD next to the bag of pretzels. After a week of doing this, you’ll come to think of snack time as snack and lesson time. Boom! Cue accomplished.
Keeping a habit going also depends on a reward. It doesn’t have to be a big reward. Just the feeling of accomplishment can be enough of a reward for most people. If you are struggling with flagging enthusiasm, you can deliberately increase your reward after a task. You need to figure out what works for you.
Popular culture has theorized that doing a habit for 30 days is enough to make it “stick.” Whether this is scientifically accurate is questionable, but the larger message is clear: Make a habit with cues and rewards and stick with it until you no longer have to think about it. Now, your task is this: What do you want this year? What are your resolutions? What habits can you build to make them happen?