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How to Create Healthier Habits

Kimberly Palmer

As author of the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, knows how to change a bad habit when he needs to. That's why, when he wanted to give up his daily afternoon cookie addiction, he applied the techniques he writes about in his book: He started exercising more, which he describes as a "keystone" habit that can make changing other habits easier, too. He soon stopped eating cookies and lost weight. Exercising more is even tied to using credit cards less frequently, he says.

U.S. News spoke to Duhigg about the science behind starting good habits, from spending less to exercising more, and ending bad ones. Excerpts:

What do successful people know about habits?

They intuitively or deliberately understand how habits work. In the last 15 years, we've learned that every habit has three components. There's a cue, or a trigger for the behavior to start, then the behavior itself, and then the reward. That's how the neurology learns how to encode that behavior for the future.

What some people know intuitively is that the real way you can create change is by focusing on the cue and the reward. The people who change their habits are the ones who do that.

What does that mean for someone who wants to start running every day?

First, choose an obvious cue, and more than one is great. Put on your running shoes before breakfast, or put your running clothes next to your bed. Come up with some kind of consistent trigger than your brain can latch onto to make the behavior automatic. Then, when you come back from running, give yourself a piece of chocolate, or watch television, or take a long shower, or have a smoothie. There has to be some kind of reward at the end.

Exercise does contain its own rewards, but for the first couple weeks, your brain doesn't believe you like exercise, so you have to trick your brain by giving it a reward it genuinely enjoys. Within six weeks, the person will stop eating that chocolate and the brain will latch onto the internal rewards, but first you need some type of external reward to retrain your brain with the reward it enjoys.

What about changing a bad habit?

You do basically the same thing. You need to diagnose the cue and reward, and then change the behavior. Once the habit is established in neurology, it is almost impossible to eradicate and takes huge willpower. So rather than say, "I'm going to ignore the bad habit and come up with a new one," you want to find a new behavior triggered by old cues that delivers a new reward.

To change a smoking habit, don't just say, "I'll stop smoking," but diagnose the reward: "Nicotine gives me a burst of energy, and I smoke at certain times of day." At those times, have a double espresso instead. It will deliver a similar reward, and then it's much easier to give up cigarettes. You're overriding an old habit.

Are habits important?

Absolutely. A study done by Duke University found that 40 to 45 percent of our daily activities are habits. The reason is because willpower is like a muscle--it's in limited supply throughout the day, so if you're using it to force yourself to return 15 emails, that muscle gets tired out, and it's not available to make you exercise or skip dessert or eat healthy. But once you have established the habit, you don't have to use up your willpower anymore. Habits make these behaviors automatic and effortless.

How long does it take to change a habit?

It changes from person to person and behavior to behavior. Some habits are really easy, and some are harder--there's no real formula. But the process is accretive; every single time you do it, the pathway associated with it becomes thicker, and easier for the current to run down, so it's easier as it goes on. At some point, it will feel automatic.

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