Habit is a powerful thing, it is the way we organise our thoughts and almost everything that we do in life. It has enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.

During high school, I was taught about Pavlov’s Dog experiment, the conditioned stimulus experiment. Pavlov rang the bell every time he fed the dog, after a lot of experiments, the dog salivated whenever he rang the bell even though the food was not there yet.

Have you ever seen the elephants in circus? Have you ever wondered why those giant animal can easily lift up a huge tree but they don’t escape when people only tie them up to a small tree with just small ropes? Those elephants were captured and nurtured in the circus since they were infant, or very small. They must have tried to pull the rope and try to break free at the beginning but because they are too small and too weak to break the rope. And after such a long time of trying without success, they would think that they cannot ever break the rope. So even when they grow up, they will not attempt to break the rope. That’s the power of habit. If you form a bad habit, it will tie you down forever. And of course a good habit will give you more energy to grow and outperform others.

A habit is formed by 3 factors:

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A habit is triggered by a cue, going through the routine and it ends with the reward. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dog’s habit starts with the bell rang (the cue), they starts to salivate (routine) and ends with the reward (being fed).

In the case of the young elephant, which try to break the rope, the habit does not end up with reward but it ends up with a punishment (they will get tired and hungry or may get some sort of punishment), so when the cue appears (which is the rope), the elephant will not try to break it, because they don’t want the punishment at the end. The elephant rider might enforce this habit by feeding the elephant when they are tied up. Hence, there will be no push factor for the elephant try to break the rope because first they don’t want to get the punishment and second, they want the reward.

Global brand company always make use of consumer habit to help them sell their product better. If there’s not yet a habit, they will try to form a new habit (this is more difficult), if there’s already a habit, they will try to change your habit and to inject their product in. For example do you know that the foam that you see when you brush your teeth everyday actually has no impact on cleaning? The cleaning mechanical action of the tooth brush does most of the cleaning job, not the toothpaste. So the more foam you have does not mean the cleaner your teeth will get. In fact, in the beginning when they started to introduce toothpaste to mankind, the toothpaste has no foam at all. As stated in the book, “foaming is a huge reward, shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair. Same thing with laundry detergent and toothpaste. The foam has no cleaning benefit, but people feel better when there’s a bunch of suds around their mouth. Once the customer starts expecting that foam, the habit starts growing”. You will find in this book a lot more interesting stories about how companies manipulate consumer by understanding consumer habit.

So if you have a bad habit and want to change it, how could you do that?

There are 4 steps:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

Think about a bad habit that you want to change, you should be able to identify when does it start.

For example, I & my wife have a bad habit that we tend to watch TV after dinner, and most of the time it will drag until bedtime. So we end up wasting the whole evening just watching TV.

What is the cue here? We are full after dinner and we want to relax after a long working day. The routine is turn on TV, lie on the bed and watch random programs. The reward is we have a good time.

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy the cravings, the cue. In this case, watching a lot of old movies, or just random shows on TV are not really reward, we just waste time doing nothing. And we want to change it. We tried with different activities for example listen to music, read books, watch a short TV show instead of just watch randomly.

We isolate the cue by not turn on the TV after dinner time. We read books instead.

So we make our reading plan, we want to replace the bad habit of watching TV to a good habit of reading. So now both of us read book every night. And we will try to form a new habit of writing too. We will write about what we learn from the books we read.

If you want to know more about habit, how people behave the way the do, then this book is highly recommended. You will find out that we, human being, actually live our lives through a series of habit. Good habits will make you a better person and bad habit will definitely affect your life.

Please feel free to share with us about your changing habit endeavour, we should learn from each other to form good habits.

Steve Pham