Articles and News

The Power of Habits to Cope in Times of Change


I read an interesting article recently which put forward the idea that, in times of great change and transition, it pays to focus on your habits and routines to keep you on track.  It stated “daily or weekly habits aligned with your long-term goals can keep you on track even when it’s hard to think ahead, and they can add stability in an otherwise unsteady time.”

This chimed with me a lot as a coach.  Coaches often support clients to take small steps towards a long term goal, asking them questions such as “what would be one step closer towards that goal?”.  If individuals are going through a time of great upheaval and transition, creating some short-term (good) habits can help them focus and cope with the broader change that’s going on.

I say “(good) habits” because, of course, many people come to coaching wanting to eliminate their bad habits.  However, there is some good news on this later in this article so keep on reading!

The habit low-down

What are habits?  Habits are the things we do regularly that are unconscious and automatic.  A study by Quinn & Wood in 2005 revealed that approximately 45% of behaviours tend to be repeated in the same location almost every day.

Why do we have them?  The main reason is that they free our minds to make us more efficient and productive and free up our capacity to process new information and to think.  

And how are they created?  Research shows that it’s down to our brain activity: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’.  The more we repeat our thoughts and actions, the more the neurons fire repeatedly, forming stronger neuronal circuits which our brain can automatically follow without having to “think”.

The good news

I mentioned that we are focusing on creating good habits in this blog.  The reason I am not talking about bad habits for now is this: you eliminate bad habits by creating new ones.  How great is that?  But how do we do it?

Let’s break our habits down into their three constituent parts:

  1. Trigger: this is related to where you are when you do the habit and what action you’ve taken immediately beforehand – it cues your brain to go into automatic mode.
  2. Action: this is what you actually do immediately following the trigger (the habit)
  3. Reward: this helps you figure out if the habit is worth repeating?

Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, calls this the “Habit Loop”.  Central to Duhigg’s approach is the “Golden Rule” which is that, in order to change a habit, you keep the same cue and reward but change the associated action(s).

Let me share a personal example with you.  When I work from home, I have a habit.  As soon as I enter the kitchen (trigger) to make a cup of tea, I open the fridge and help myself to some tasty cheese (action) which releases some lovely endorphins (reward).  Now, logically I know that the endorphins are not going to last and I will feel guilty (and my waistline will suffer) in the long-term.  However, I follow this routine on auto-pilot.

So, I need to train my brain to do a different activity when I enter the kitchen, particularly now we are in lockdown!  For example, I could do some quick physical activity (jumping jacks, jog a couple times round the garden).  This would still give me the desired “rush” from the endorphins released but curb my cheese habit...

What to do now

  1. Maintain your established good habits in times of change: We all have some good habits and it can be easy to let those slip if you’re feeling stressed and anxious or if your routine has changed in any way.  Make a list of all your good habits and really focus on maintaining these.
  2. Start to eliminate your bad habits and replace them with better habits: make a list of the bad habits you’d like to eliminate.  Use the Golden Rule to positively transform one habit at a time.
  3. Create some new habits: In times of change, it is even more important to look after your physical wellbeing and mental resilience.  Create some new and healthy habits which will boost your “five ways to wellbeing”

I’d love to hear about your habits and your successes (or failures) in improving them.  In return, I’ll let you know how I’m getting on with my cheese addiction…

(Duhigg, C. (2013).  The power of habit: why we do what we do and how to change.  London: Random House.)

If you would like this weekly blog sent directly to your inbox, as well as receive a copy of my “Top 3 Ways to Boost Your Career Happiness Right Now,” please click here.