How to Break a Bad Habit

Fewer things are more difficult than breaking a bad habit. Smokers, for instance, find it incredibly hard to quit. This article attempts to relate Six Sigma to the all-important subject of habits.  Photo courtesy:

Fewer things are more difficult than breaking a bad habit. Smokers, for instance, find it incredibly hard to quit. This article attempts to relate Six Sigma to the all-important subject of habits.

Photo courtesy:

How to break a bad habit: Life Lessons from “Design for Lean Six Sigma” – Develop Habits (Part 4)

 By Kolawole Ayinuola, PhD

The goal of the Six Sigma methodology is to minimize waste and improve efficiency—a goal most of us want in our personal lives. We have been discussing the DMEDI (Define, Measure, Explore, Develop, and Implement) approach to Six Sigma on this blog. In Define, we outlined our proposed endeavor and established what constitutes success. In Measure, we identified critical attributes that will improve the quality of our decisions as we journey toward the successful realization of our mission. In Explore, we took a deep-dive into understanding who we are, and what it looks like when we are functioning at our best. Today, we will wrap up our discussion by looking at the Develop phase, where we put it all together.

 What “Develop” is about

 In the Develop phase, we employ tested strategies to craft a path to the realization of our end product, incorporating all the information gathered in the preceding three phases. This is the phase where we attempt to animate what has hitherto been ideas on paper. In personal terms, I see the Develop phase as a habit-forming phase. We identify the specific steps that we will take toward reinforcing vital attributes and behaviors to help us elicit consistent responses to life’s circumstances. For example, in daily life, our attraction to great products/service providers is informed by the quality of service and satisfaction that we have come to expect from them. I guess you can say they have developed a habit of delivering quality outcomes.

 What are habits?

 Charles Duhigg gives a simple, yet profound, definition of habits in his book, The Power of Habits:

 Habits are the choices that we all deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, almost every day.

 Our brain is naturally wired to look for patterns to help it accomplish its tasks as efficiently as possible. Those conscious, repetitive patterns become habits that can make or mar us. It is both a strength and a weakness. Two concepts jump out from Duhigg’s definition of habits: automaticity and consistency. It is the consistency of the choices we make that informs the automaticity of the behavior. Duhigg further adds: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.

 How habits are formed

When a notification pops up on my phone, my immediate response is to see what it is. I then decide to act on that notification, potentially going down a rabbit trail of distractions. This simple analogy describes the habit loop (Cue ® Behavior ® Reward), the result of years of scientific studies summarized in The Power of Habits. We form habits when we consistently respond to a trigger (phone buzzing) in order to experience a reward (scrolling through social media). In the author Mark Manson's words, “Habits form when you engage in a behavior repeatedly in the presence of a consistent stimuli. They are automatic responses to familiar environmental cues.”

 How to break a bad habit: Find new routines.

Understanding how habits are formed is fundamental to devising a good strategy to breaking bad ones. Rather than expending willpower to correct a behavior (If I can just stop…), find your triggers and create a new routine to replace old cues. In The Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod challenges us to change the trajectory of our lives by being intentional about our morning routines. It all starts with cultivating good habits. To get started on the journey to better habits, here are a few points:

 ·       Start Small: Starting with a goal that does not require a significant amount of willpower improves the odds of repetition and consequently automaticity. Stephen Guise introduces the concept of mini-habits in his book on the subject. There, he enjoins us to come out of the “high expectations” bubble, because “big intentions are worthless if they don’t bring results.” We all suffer from variable forms of delusions of grandeur where we overestimate our self-control. When we set smaller targets that are easily attainable, we get a boost of energy to keep on going. We can reinvest that extra energy towards what Guise calls bonus reps, rather than bigger requirements

 ·       Celebrate your progress: Every goal met is a deposit toward a positive mental attitude, providing jet fuel for progress in other areas of our lives, so do not belittle the small steps you take every day toward your goal. It is important to reward yourself from time to time, even for what may seem like small progress. In fact, the expectation of a reward can itself be a motivation.  

 ·       Design Failure Modes Effects and Analysis (DFMEA): In what ways can things go wrong? How severe will it be? What is the course of action?

·       Plan for unavoidable changes in your schedules—traveling or a job change that may derail your consistency.

·       Adjust your cues to accommodate the change. Remember, every behavior starts with a stimulus.

·       Failure is part of the learning process, so don’t throw away your routine (and progress) over a couple missed practices. Get back on your bike and keep riding.

 Our willpower is not designed to sustain good habits, due to what psychologists call ego depletion. Everybody has a limit to how far they can go on willpower. Willpower is better used to break the initial inertia to get you started on a routine toward better habits.

 How habits connect the Define phase to Develop

In today’s information age, the principles of success are the worst kept secret, but knowing and doing live in different time zones. The cultivation of effective habits helps us build a bridge from knowing to doing, so that we can leverage our knowledge and skills to accomplish our goal. Mark Manson perfectly captures how habits connect Define to Develop in The Guide to Habits. He says, “Instead of asking yourself what goal you would like to reach, go one step further and ask which habits you’d have to implement for that goal to be achievable, then expend some willpower to get you started on implementing those life habits.”

 Have you ever successfully implemented new habits in order to achieve your goals? What was the key ingredient in your success?