A few days ago I was having a problem with my toilet; it was leaking water all over the floor. I had to do something or my apartment was going to flood!
So, I turned off the water to the toilet and emptied the tank. Next step? Fix it! But, it was going to be a while before I had time for that.
“No problem,” I thought to myself. “I’ll just use the bathroom upstairs until I can get mine fixed.
What happened next, though, was very surprising, and it illustrated for me an important piece of the habit creation puzzle and what you need to do to break a bad one.
Here’s what happened…
Powerful Habits: Your Mind On Autopilot
After turning the water to the toilet off, I told myself I’d go upstairs to use the restroom. But for the rest of the day, rather than go upstairs, I’d head into my bathroom, lift the lid, and begin to… uh… relieve myself.
This happened no fewer than four times (I drink a lot of water). Each time, I’d get halfway through finishing my business and realize the mistake I’d made. This meant turning the water back on, waiting a minute or two for the tank to fill up, and getting a bowl to catch the leak.
I’d curse and tell myself to think next time, but 45 minutes later I’d head right back into the bathroom and do it again.
I was stuck in a bad habit.
I have a standard procedure for using the bathroom at home. You probably do, too. I thought changing it temporarily would be no problem, but it turned out to be nearly impossible. Every time I had the urge to go, my mind and body would go into autopilot and lead me directly to my bathroom even though I knew it was broken and there was a perfectly good one just a few seconds away.
How A Habit Works (And What You Need To Know To Change It)
About this time last year, I picked up a copy of a book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.
It was a fascinating read that talked all about how habits are formed, how they’re changed, and how they’re broken. There were all kinds of high-profile examples like Colgate getting Americans with horrible teeth to start brushing every morning at the turn of the 20th century or how Procter & Gamble turned Fabreeze into a billion dollar brand using customer habits after nearly scrapping the product because it wasn’t selling.
What it all comes down to is a simple set of three aspects that dictate every habit in your life. They go in this order:
- Cue: The trigger that tells your brain, “Okay, it’s time to do X,Y,Z.”
- Routine: The autopilot behavior that takes over your body without you even realizing it after the cue is triggered.
- Reward: The motivation for completing the routine.
We all have habits—good or bad—and we can relate to this:
- Your morning routine: You probably have a specific set of actions you complete every morning without fail. They might include eating, cleaning and dressing yourself, and perhaps reading or catching up on the news.
- Your eating routine: You’ve built a series of habits that, when you’re busy, automatically tell you what to do to get food to keep up your energy. It could be going to the refrigerator for a healthy snack, or it could be driving to the fast food joint to pick up a quick burger.
- Your productivity: How much you get done at work each day and how you spend your weekends at home is the result of habits you’ve built over time.
All of these routines you’ve built around your life were—hopefully—put together with some thought and planning at one point. But now they’re automatic. You could hardly stop them if you wanted to.
And this is the problem. When you have a great habit like running three days a week or eating carrots every afternoon, you don’t want to change it.
If you get a bit careless, though, and let a bad habit like smoking or eating junk food into your daily routine, your habit can become a prison. The cue to light up or head to the 7 Elven comes, and you obey with robotic precision.
You don’t want to do these things, but damn is it hard to break free!
Luckily, there’s one psychological hack you can use that gives you a fighting chance. And it’s what finally got me to stop going to the bathroom in my broken toilet.
The Habit Interruption Technique
After the fourth time kicking myself for using the broken toilet, I decided I needed a way to remind myself of the situation before it was too late to, ahem, turn back.
The solution I came up with was incredibly simple. I took the cover off the tank and set it behind the toilet.
That was all it took! Now the toilet looked different—something I wasn’t used to—and it was enough to break me out of autopilot just long enough to re-direct myself upstairs.
All I did was add another cue to the mix—one that I controlled.
The original cue was the sensation of needing to use the restroom. From there, I would go directly into autopilot and head to the bathroom. What I needed was another cue that came later. The “broken toilet” cue is what did it.
But I had to set it up outside of the habit routine. I had to wait until I was no longer in the cycle, and then set up the secondary cue by taking the lid off the tank so when the cue came again and my brain went into autopilot, it would get another cue upon reaching the toilet that would interrupt the habit and give me that critical moment of pause to reassess the situation.
If you have a bad habit you’d like to change, you can use the habit interruption technique, too.
Just follow the cue–>routine–>reward sequence from earlier. Identify the beginning of the automatic routine that fires once the cue comes, and insert a second cue that breaks you out of autopilot long enough to make a different decision about what to do.
Here are some examples…
- If you’re trying to quit smoking, you could throw your smokes away and force yourself to drive or walk to the store to buy more when you get the urge. The craving might drive you nuts, but the long trip will break you out of the automatic routine long enough to talk yourself out of it on the way. The same could work if you’re trying to quit a bad eating habit.
- Maybe you want to watch less TV every day after work. Selling your TV or putting it in the closet might be too hard at first (but certainly not ill-advised). Unplugging it between uses, though, would force you dig behind the set, find the cord, and plug it in to watch rather than pick up the remote. That’ll give you the pause needed to ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to be doing right now?”
- What if you’re a chronic web-surfer and it’s keeping you from creating something? You could leave whatever program you create in open and make sure it’s ready to go every time you close your computer. Then, when you open it again, your creation tool is staring you right in the face. It forces you out of the autopilot process of going directly to your web browser. The easiest thing to do is just start working.
You Are Smarter Than Your Habits (Your Homework Today)
Whatever habit is eating at you, adding a second cue that interrupts it before you get started is the most effective hack I know for interrupting and beating it. Your bad habits may be powerful, but you’re smarter and stronger. This is how you win.