Tiffany Gee Lewis: How to break bad habits

Published: Wednesday, May 21 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

A month ago, our family routine had fallen apart. Then everything changed. Here's how.


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A month ago, I was at wit’s end.

Despite enormous effort to craft an efficient morning routine, our family was falling apart. Kids were rolling out of beds an hour late, dropping their pajamas to the floor and dragging themselves to school. We were late almost every day. Breakfast was a hurried affair. Piano and violin practice, always part of our morning routine, fell completely by the wayside. By the time I managed to get everyone out the door, I was ready for therapy.

The 'habit loop'

About this same time, I started reading the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

In his book, Duhigg writes about how we fall into habits, both good and bad. He calls it the “habit loop.” Take, for instance, the habit of snacking when I sit down to write. My cue is pulling out my computer for a writing session. This cue leads me to the kitchen, where I root around for a bowl of chips or almonds. This is my routine. I sit down to write, and while I write I munch away, feeling happy because I am writing and eating something tasty. That is the reward. Every day, I loop back to this cue. I’ve been doing it for years, and I do it whether I’m hungry or not. It is an ingrained habit.

We do this with all sorts of things. We check our phones at stoplights. We eat a snack before bed. We drink soda for breakfast. We drop our clothes on the floor instead of putting them away. We gamble or watch too much TV or skip the gym or procrastinate that looming deadline or snap at our kids. Bad habits crop up all around us. Entire industries develop around this habit loop, knowing the intrinsic habits of human nature (read: casinos, online gaming, cigarettes, among many others).

Of course, good habits follow that same habit loop. Attending church on a regular basis can be a positive habit with the rewards of social interaction, shared community and uplifting by the good word of God.

We tap into the habit loop for exercise. It makes us feel good, and if we can control the urge to stay in bed, getting up to go for a jog has its positive rewards. So does calling a friend on a regular basis, reading scripture, choosing an apple over a cookie, reading a good book instead of going online, finishing a project before deadline and hanging up your clothes instead of dropping them to the floor.

Tapping into the loop

Often, we fall into bad habits because the rewards are more immediate. Bad habits shout louder, and often they don’t take as much work as the good habits. It’s more work to eat an apple than a cookie. It takes more brain power to read a book than watch TV. We battle entropy and human nature every day, as well as those industries fighting to keep our bad habits alive.

Which leads to my dilemma with our family’s morning routine. How could I turn some of our family’s bad habits around to good ones?

The answer came from a video game. One day, my kids were fiddling around on the iPad with some bike race game. I heard one son exclaim to the other, “You passed the next level. You get to see the hidden bike!”

A lightbulb went on. Like any blue-blooded child of this generation, my children are hugely motivated by games. They love the sense of achievement, of twinkling tokens and movement from level to level, of ratcheting points and hidden gems. Video game creators are champions of tapping into the habit loop.

I realized if I wanted to motivate my kids, I needed to make our family routine more like a video game.

I took a giant poster board and wrote a snappy name — "Super Lewis Smash: Beginner Level" — at the top.

Under that were cards, Stage 1: 250 points. Stage 2: 500 points, and so on, up to 1,000 points. On the back of each card I wrote a small prize: a dollar, a milkshake, an extra hour of media time, etc.

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