• Owen Stephens

The Power of Habit

Updated: Jan 30

Recently I was inspired by the power of habit. I was feeling the need for some change in my life. When struggling to motivate myself, I find it incredibly useful to watch, read, or listen to something to help inspire you. While trying to become motivated again I stumbled upon a TedTalk on The Power of Habits. In this talk, Charles Duhigg claims that purely by using the power of habits you can change your life; making you significantly more successful than your peers. How is this possible? His answer is willpower.


The Power of Habit


Why do we do the things we do? How do habits work? Why are they so powerful? In his TedTalk and his book, Charles Duhigg elaborates on the findings of Dr. Ann Graybiel. In summary, Dr. Graybiel inserted 150 sensors into the brain of rats in order to track their brain activity while completing an extremely simple maze.

Rat Maze Habit

What she found was that on the first couple of rounds the rat moved through the maze extremely slowly. When the gate clicked open the rat would sit there and wander up and down the maze, scratching at the wall. Looking right at the chocolate, then walking the other way until eventually finding the treat. At first, the rat was just assumed to be incredibly stupid. However, the sensors in the brain picked up a very high level of brain activity. After several rounds, the rat began to complete the maze faster and faster running straight for the chocolate. Here are the results that Dr. Graybiel’s brain sensors found:

Habit effect on Brain

After several rounds, there was an extreme decrease in the level of brain activity in the rat while completing the maze. In fact, during the maze the rat reached the same level of brain activity it would have had while sleeping. This lull in brain activity shows the effects habits have on our brain. When you do something over and over again your brain begins to work on autopilot. I am sure many of you have experienced this while driving or walking home. You remember leaving work and then you get lost in thought and all of a sudden you are home. Not remembering the trip. The rat experienced the same thing, hearing the click of the gate dropping, and all of a sudden it was at the chocolate without remembering running the maze. This is now known as the habit loop.

Habit Loop

Why does this matter?


Sure, Owen, that is cool, but how is a rat eating chocolate going to help me? Knowing how the habit loop works allow you to use it to change your life. Let’s say you really want to start exercising. Normally you come home from work and take a 30-minute nap, but today you wake up and say instead of napping I am going to go for a run. However, 5 o’clock comes around and you know you should be going for a run. Instead, you go home and take a nap the way you always do. You, my friend, are in a habit loop. Your cue is getting off of work, your routine is taking a nap, and your reward is the energy and relaxation the nap brings you. If you want to change any habit you must understand what makes you do it in the first place. It isn’t enough to simply say I am going to start exercising, or even more specifically I am going to run today at 5. You must set a cue and a reward for yourself. Instead, let us say you set your cue as getting off work, and your reward as a piece of chocolate (or something else you truly enjoy). Rewarding yourself for exercising with chocolate seems counter-intuitive, however, without some sort of reward your brain has no motivation. Eventually, you will form a habit loop with exercising becoming routine, and you will no longer need the chocolate as a reward because your brain will see the natural release of hormones as a reward. Soon it will be almost impossible not to want to exercise after work. Building habits around things that will make you healthier and more productive can make you extremely successful. It also will do one more extremely powerful thing… Improve your willpower.


Marshmallows for Willpower


What will put you or your children ahead in life? Is it being attractive, having a high IQ, or having extremely wealthy parents? Studies have shown that strong willpower single-handedly has the highest correlation with success. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment perfectly demonstrates willpower in children. The experiment is simple, he took 32 4-year olds (half boys and half girls). He left them individually alone in a room with a marshmallow on a plate. I believe Duhigg said it best, “Leaving a marshmallow in front of a 4-year old is like leaving crack cocaine in front of an addict”. The 4-year olds were told that they can eat the marshmallow now, however, if they wait they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Only 4 of the 36 had the willpower to wait for the second marshmallow. Now, this is interesting but who cares? Where it really gets interesting is when you follow the lives of these children. As they get older the children that had more willpower were wildly more successful. They were better behaved, performed better in school, were more likely to get into universities, and receive better jobs. They even were more popular. Their popularity was not because they were more attractive or played sports. All of this is a result of having more willpower.

My 21 Day Habit Challenge


I decided I wanted to use the power of habit. Studies show it takes 21 days to form a habit. So, for the next 21 days, I am going to form a habit of waking up at 7 am, making my bed, and reading for 30 mins. My cue will be my morning alarm and to reward myself I am going to get a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop. And the second habit I am going to form is going to the gym every day at 8 pm. Rewarding myself with a piece of chocolate. I encourage all of you to take this challenge with me. Forming habits takes willpower, making you more successful in life and more likely to achieve your goals. If you need to know how to set good goals to check out my other article How to Set Goals and Achieve Them.


The Power of Habit

If you found this idea interesting, I only scratched the surface of what this can do for you and I recommend picking up The Power of Habit. You can Check it out on Charles Duhigg’s website or on Amazon.


Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/2FmroGo


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