Fixing habit loops

You’re totally irrational.

Sure, you might think that you have complete control over your actions. You set goals and then make reasoned decisions that will lead, inexorably to achieving those goals.

Except it never works that way. You’re much more prone to irrational actions and harmful habits than you think.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend my time more productively. I wanted to spend less time playing video games, and more time working, reading, writing, exercising — basically, anything that would be considered “productive”.

But my sister got me a copy of FIFA ’16 for Christmas. I really enjoy it — it’s fun, competitive, and fast-paced.

So I played it. A lot.

I would sit on the couch, grab the controller and say to myself, “I’ll play one game of FIFA, then hit the gym.”

3 hours later, I’d look up, realising that not only had I wasted a lot of time, but I’d also made myself angry, frustrated and miserable because I’d played badly and lost a few games. And that anger and frustration was compounded by my anger at having wasted so much time.

Obviously, the answer would be to just stop playing after one game, right? Or to only let myself pick up the controller after completing a set amount of productive behaviour? That would be the rational way forward. Still have the option to play FIFA whenever I want, but limit myself to a set amount of time.

Great ideas. In theory, at least. Except I’m well aware that I lack a certain amount of self-control. And at this point, firing up the PS4 first thing in the morning had become a strongly-ingrained habit loop.

Source: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/habitrpg/images/d/d6/Habitloop.png/revision/latest?cb=20141010040839
A standard habit loop has a cue, a routine, and a reward.

(For more on habit loops, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)

Cue: wake up, make tea, sit on couch.

Routine: pick up controller, start playing. Each game starts automatically after the next, so I don’t need to consciously decide to play again, it just happens.

Reward: variable bursts of emotion, happiness and dopamine when I win, score, equalise.

It’s hard to break habit loops like that.

So about a month, I just got rid of the game. Traded it in for a few quid — although I would have happily thrown it away.

And, almost unconsciously, my routine changed.

Cue: wake up, make tea, sit on couch.

Routine: pick up book, read 2-3 chapters slowly while enjoying tea

Reward: feel refreshed, awake, and happy at spending time productively.

I kept the same cue, and there was still a reward, but the routine changed.

And, would you believe it? Now I get a lot more done. I read more. My mood is better throughout the day. I even work out more, so I’m in better shape. I write more. I work harder. I’m happier.

An easy, simple action, that had a dramatic effect on my life. I wonder where else I can make such big gains? What other, more subtle, improvements am I missing?

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