July 26, 2016

Office Habits Die Hard

After falling flat on my face in my attempt to stop eating Peanut M&Ms in last week’s experiment, I decided to focus this week’s post on my quest to learn more about habits and how we can use them to positively influence our lives. As trivial as my M&M experiment was, how many times have you made similar goals to start exercising or eat better? Many of the decisions we make each and every day, the decisions that have the most impact on our well-being, are hardly decisions at all—they’re habits. In this post, I’ll walk you through how I used Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to evaluate my M&M addiction and set myself up for change.


Step 1:  Identify the Routine


According to Ann Graybiel, a neuroscientist at MIT, there are three basic components that make up the foundation of each habit. Identifying the routine and rewards are pretty simple. For me, the routine was getting up from my desk, walking to the kitchen, and grabbing a handful (or two, or three, or four) of M&Ms. The reward was the delivery of sugar. The cue, on the other hand, can be more difficult to identify. Don’t worry, though, we’ll get there.


Step 2: Experiment with Rewards


It’s important to make the distinction that we are NOT trying to extinguish a habit, but instead, simply to change it. My habit was getting up and chomping on some M&Ms so in order to change this habit, I need to find something to replace it with. This step is geared towards experimenting with things that will satisfy whatever craving you’re having. Instead of trying to make long lasting change, think of yourself as a scientist gathering data. This week, when I had an urge to grab a handful of M&Ms, I adjusted my routine to deliver a different reward. For example, some of the things I tried were:


  • Handful of salted nuts
  • Handful of blueberries
  • A walk around the office
  • Stretching for a minute at my desk
  • Chewing on ice cubes
  • Cup of tea
  • Glass of iced coffee


After each activity I jotted down the first 3 things that came to my mind. Below are my notes after each activity (in order). After I jotted down these notes, I set an alarm for 15 minutes—when the alarm went off, I evaluated whether I was still having the M&M craving and indicated either Yes (Y) or No (N) on the bottom of the stickies.


The interesting thing is that even though I’m clearly not hungry, I’m definitely craving some sort of food item and don’t seem satisfied until I have it.


Step 3: Isolate the Cue


If we’re going to manage cravings, we need to be prepared when they hit. In order to be prepared, we need to know the cue that initiates the craving. Fortunately, scientists have proven that almost all habitual cues fit into at least one of the five categories below.


  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People—who else is around?
  • Immediately preceding action


In my effort to better understand my Peanut M&M snacking habit, I recorded these facts for a week and a half. Below, I’ve included my notes from the first three days. What remained very consistent over the week and a half was the time of day (usually around 3-3:30) and the action preceding the urge (I had always either just finished something or had reached an impasse).

Where are you? At desk.

What time is it? 3:01 pm.

What’s your emotional state? Bored.

Who else is around? Valecia.

What action preceded the urge? Finished task.

Where are you? At desk.

What time is it? 3:25 pm.

What’s your emotional state? Excited about new project.

Who else is around? Valecia.

What action preceded the urge? Got stuck in where to go next.

Where are you? At desk.

What time is it? 3:38 pm.

What’s your emotional state? Mentally fatigued.

Who else is around? No one.

What action preceded the urge? Answered email.

Step 4: Have a Plan


At this point, we’ve identified our routine, we have a better idea of what reward our body and mind are craving, and we know what’s causing us to begin our habit. The final step is to have a plan when that cue hits. For my habit, I’m going to set an alarm at 3 pm every day. When the alarm goes off, I’ll get up, have a handful of salted nuts, pour an iced coffee, and get back to work.


Concluding Thoughts


Compared with more intense addictions, an afternoon M&M habit should be a walk in the park, and yet, I have firsthand experience to tell me it still won’t be easy. Regardless of the nature of the habit, though, this framework is a place to start. Once we understand the components within our habits, we can choose to become active rather than passive decision makers. You don’t need your doctor to tell you that you should be exercising more or eating better, you already know that. Do it.