I consider myself somewhat of an expert at habit change. After all, I have been successful at it ever since I was a kid. I beat the incessant nail-biting, reduced my overuse of the word ‘no’ and conditioned myself to wake up early (4 am!) to study. All this, I figured then, was the result of some mysterious subconscious drive. I was happy to have it.
Fast forward 15 years. As a licensed driver in North America, you must adhere to several rules and regulations. Having grown up in the Indian subcontinent this was alien to me at first. Not to say there are no rules in India but no one seems to follow them. So my success then, I gathered, was again due to subconscious awareness (that and my Schumacher-like driving skills).
“If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere in the world.”
If you are non-Indian and have ever ridden in a car with an Indian driver you have most likely heard this already. Let’s just say that if I heard a defendant use it to plead ‘not guilty’ to a traffic violation it wouldn’t be a surprise. That’s how overused the sentence is. Alas, this posts’ title reveals the real truth as much as it speaks to my Schumacher-like skills.
I remember zipping through fields in backcountry Ontario on a bright sunny afternoon. I was on my way to the mall to pick up something inconsequential. It was a beautiful day. Fields on my left, large farmhouses with tall hedges lining driveways on the right. No speed sign insight. Pedal to the metal! What happened next happened in slo-mo. Ironic given the speed I was at. It was too late to slow down. I spotted him behind one of those beautiful hedges. I think I saw him smile as he went to flip on the flashing lights while I zoomed by almost certain of our eye to eye contact. Busted! Sadly that was the first of a few more tickets I received over the course of the year.
Winds of change
Something had to change. These tickets were beginning to get expensive. My subconscious which seemed to serve me so well when I was a kid had vanished. I needed to change and needed to change now! To do this I had to rely on my ability to dissect problems. This combined with wisdom from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg set me on an informed path of recovery. Here’s what I learned about the science of habit change and I hope you can use this too.
The Habit Loop
Habits form as a result of a three stepped habit loop:
Cue (you have to find this) – Routine (you need to change this) – Rewards (you need to define this). Habits work like this – When I see a CUE, I will do a ROUTINE to get a REWARD. Habits create neurological Cravings. As you associate a cue with a reward, a subconscious craving emerges in our brain that starts the habit loop spinning. So to change a habit, you must:
- recognize and keep the old cue,
- deliver the old reward,
- but insert a new routine.
It’s that simple! Not! but you can transform almost any behaviour can if you follow the loop. Let’s look at how I tried to change my driving habits with this newfound knowledge.
Tear down of my Need For Speed
To start off I knew I had to first become aware of what I was actually doing during normal driving situations. In essence, I needed to become more aware of my ROUTINE. These were some of my findings:
- I would always speed up when I saw the traffic signal change to Amber. The hope was I beat the signal.
- On seeing a speed sign I sometimes lowered my speed. The rest of the time I would ignore it.
- I always drove in the high-speed lane and felt the constant need to overtake. This meant that I was always driving above the speed limit (within the generally accepted max limit of course)
So what were the CUES here? At signal stops it was the changing of the lights. While driving along a road speed signs formed the next cue. The third cue for me was a slower moving vehicle that was adopting the speed limit. What I was CRAVING for was getting to the destination on or ahead of time. So if I reached a destination ahead of or on time I was happy. This was my well-defined REWARD.
To change my habit I had to recognize the cues and change my routine to achieve my reward. Here’s what I did:
- When I saw the amber light I hit the brake, not the accelerator. There were many times I kept going back to the old habit. But with constant awareness, I started to change.
- Whenever I saw a speed limit sign I would drop my speed down to the number posted on the sign (in all honesty I’d go to max 10 kmph above the posted limit).
- My car has cruise control so I went a step further and used it to curb my need for speed. For those of you without cruise control, you need to beast mode it.
- I have forced myself to use the middle lanes. I now only use the left lanes to overtake cars in front of me without increasing speed
- To make sure I reach my destinations on time I now leave at least 5 to 10 minutes earlier whenever possible.
Read the list above again and notice I changed my routine when my old cues showed up.
What I learned about habit change
Here’s what I learned:
- To change a habit you must cultivate a craving. Cultivating this craving helps drive the habit loop
- Your reward needs to be well defined. Your brain needs to start expecting this reward when you complete a routine. That’s when you know you are on the right path.
- A cue needs to trigger both the routine and the craving for the reward. If you don’t crave the reward you won’t change your habit.
- Habit change takes time. You are not going to change habits over a week. It could take months sometimes years. Be realistic.
- Habit changes quicken when in a group environment. Looking to become a first-time marathon runner? You would have a higher chance of success running with a group.
- For other habits, I have found just talking to people about it often helps.
So what habit do you want to change this year? Can you identify the Cue, Routine and Reward?