Habits can have a disturbing power over our lives. If you’ve ever had a longing, desire, or cravings that you couldn’t resist, such as the urge to eat junk food or something similar, knowing it was wrong but could not help yourself, then you are in the right place.
Stopping a bad habit with sheer willpower hardly works. The only way to reliably halt cravings and amend bad habits is to leverage the golden rule of habit change. The golden rule of habit change says, ‘If you want to change a bad habit, keep the promptings and the reward of your bad habit, but insert a new routine to replace the habit’. In other words, keep what triggers your cravings and the sensation you crave but replace the behavior with a new one.
The Golden Rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD’s), and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it, can help you or anyone change their habits.
For example, if you want to stop wasting hours mindlessly checking your phone, or snacking on food that makes you feel like crap, you can use the golden rule of habit change to gain power over your bad habits by implementing three steps.
The first step: Rethink the reward. When a smoker craves a cigarette, conventional wisdoms assume that they crave the nicotine in the cigarette. Well, if this was true, smokers who use a nicotine patch or chew nicotine gum, when they crave a smoke should be able to stop smoking. However, research has shown that less than 10% of smokers who use nicotine patches or gum quit smoking and that what the smokers crave is less obvious.
Some smokers crave a cigarette because their brains have associated smoking with going outside and socializing with other smokers. Other smokers crave cigarettes because the act of smoking relieves boredom and provides a temporary escape from their anxiety. In either case, these smokers don’t need a cigarette to experience the reward they are craving.
Just as smokers don’t need a cigarette to satisfy their cigarette craving, we don’t need junk food to satisfy our food craving, or we don’t need to check our phones to satisfy our phone craving. Maybe when we have cravings, some stimulation and a break is often the reward we are craving.
In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia, they wanted to see the extent to which the average person craves stimulation. So they asked a series of participants to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes and just think. The room was empty except for a device that allowed the participants to give themselves a mild shock. Almost half the participants, elected to shock themselves over and over again. In their conclusion, the researcher said at best, most people would rather be doing something other than nothing, even if that something was harmful.
Even when we know eating junk food is bad for us, or checking Twitter, email, TikTok or YouTube will lead to hours of wasted time, we still do it to satisfy our need for stimulation and experience a temporary escape from our anxious thoughts. However, the only way to know if what you essentially crave is stimulation or a break is to analyze your bad habits and test out new routines.
Step number two: Test new routines. Charles Duhigg, an author and whose book we are reviewing, developed a daily cookie craving. As a result, he was gaining weight and having an ever-expanding waistline. He had just learned about the golden rule of habit change. So he got to work testing out new routines that could satisfy his craving without actually eating cookies.
First, he needed to isolate the cue that triggered his craving. So for the next week, he answered these four questions every time he experienced a craving.
- Where am I?
- What time is it?
- What’s my emotional state? That is, are you stressed, anxious, bored, etc
- What am I doing? That is, what action is preceding my craving?
After a week of observing what led to his cookie craving, he was able to see a pattern and isolate the cue that triggered his bad habit. At roughly 3:30pm every day in the office, he started craving cookies. Now that he was aware of the cue that triggered his craving, he could test new routines immediately following the cue. Over the course of the next few days, he set an alarm for 3:30pm and executed a non-cookie eating routine each time. Then 15 minutes later, he would take note of how he was feeling and if his craving had subsided.
On the first day, he walked around the block and then went back to his desk without eating anything, that wasn’t very effective. The next day, he bought an apple at the cafeteria, ate it, and then went back to his desk. That also didn’t satisfy his craving. The next day, he ordered a cup of coffee and went back to work, which slightly worked. But the following day, he went to a friend’s office to have a conversation for a few minutes, and then went back to his desk. That seemed to work.
Through experimentation, he learned that it wasn’t essentially the cookie he craved, rather, it was a moment of distraction, and the opportunity to socialize. After a few weeks of setting an alarm at 3:30 pm, and talking with a friend, he found that he no longer craved cookies. Now, at about 3:30 pm every day, he will absent-mindedly stand up, looking around the newsroom for someone to talk to for about 10 minutes, and then goes back to his desk. It occurred every day without him thinking about it. It had become a habit.
The process of replacing a bad habit is fairly straightforward, but not entirely easy. The first few weeks of replacing a bad routine with a better healthier routine will involve some slip-ups and require a bit of willpower. But luckily, there’s a hack for that.
Step three: Script your new routine. In 1992, five dozen patients who had just had orthopedic surgery were recruited into a study. In the study, half the patients were asked to write out where and when they plan to go for a walk each day. For example, “At 2pm, I will go for a walk around my neighbourhood”. But the other half simply set the intention of walking more but did not write down a specific walking plan each day.
When the psychologist leading the study visited the patients three months later, she found that the patients who had detailed walking plans walked almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. And the patients with detailed walking plans had started getting in and out of their chairs unassisted almost three times faster.
In other words, those who found the willpower to do their rehabilitation exercise each day were the ones who had written out clear behavioral plans. The same principle will apply to changing any bad habit. By simply writing out what you will do when the cue for your bad habit is present, you will dramatically increase the odds of executing your new routine.
Starbucks food chain got all new employees to carry out the exercise. They were to write in a workbook: when my customer is unhappy I will ……… and then I’ll get to enjoy a grateful customer or praise from my manager. These behavior plans helped employees who had a track record of losing their temper, to stay calm and composed through an often long shift.
Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, and a willpower researcher at the University of Pennsylvania said that ‘sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard, but that’s because they made the process automatic’. Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.
When you write out your new routine, following the cue for your bad habit, you’ll be less likely to fall back into your bad habit, because you’ll simply follow your plan without having to think about it.
In the end, instead of using your willpower to suppress cravings and resist bad habits, get curious and study your bad habit loop. Get in the habit of asking yourself the following questions:
- What is the exact cue that is triggering my bad habit?
- What is the real reward I seek?
Remember that just because you have a junk food craving doesn’t mean you need to eat a junk food to satisfy your craving.
Once you’ve answered these questions, then it’s time to implement the golden rule of habit change by experimenting with different routines that can deliver a similar reward and satisfy your craving.
The goal is to get to the point where you can write down the following:
when I ‘write down your old cue’, I will ‘write down your new routine’ to experience ‘write your old reward’