The Power of Habit, Update 3: The Power of Belief


I'll get right into this one...

Belief is a key component to successfully changing a habit!

Imagine that! Belief! If you believe in your ability to change, and that you are strong enough to make it through the tough times as they come, then you are more likely to follow through with your new behavior. Makes sense, yeah?

This is coming from Chapter 3 of The Power of Habit, by the way, in which Charles Duhigg writes about, among other things, how coach Tony Dungy used the Golden Rule of habit change to turn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a winning team. I'm not very interested in the football bit, but the habit bit, absolutely. And what is that golden rule?

Old habits cannot be extinguished, only transformed.

(On a side note, this sounds very much like the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.)

So then, how do we transform old habits? By changing the ROUTINE, while keeping the CUE and the REWARD the same. Remember in the first TPOH Update, I explained these three components of the habit loop, and how, if you want to change a habit, you need to become a scientist and perform simple experiments to identify what the cue and rewards actually are. For example, the reward for someone who smokes cigarettes is not necessarily the nicotine high; it could very possibly be distraction from work, or a way to socialize with friends.

So, how to transform that habit. Think about it. It makes sense that we can't really change the cue nor the reward. The cue developed when the habit first developed, so they are inherently linked together. Maybe the cue was an emotional or traumatic event which prompted smoking or drinking, and now every time things get hectic, I grab a drink or smoke to take my mind off of things. And so, in this scenario, my reward isn't actually the experience of feeling drunk nor is it the feeling of nicotine in my brain — it's relaxation, taking my mind off of troubling life problems. The very good news is, I can get that same reward by following a different routine.

And that's what we can actually change. Alcoholics Anonymous has demonstrated this for many people by replacing the routine of drinking with a routine of community support and socializing through meetings and sponsors. Many people say they could not have found sobriety without AA. However, AA is not the only way, and it seems that most people who quit their addictions do so on their own, by some means.

(The author writes a footnote addressing the connection between habits and addictions, which is something I have thought about very much and will probably write about sometime.)

Upon examining the 12 Steps of AA, it becomes clear that many of the steps accomplish the task of identifying personal triggers for indulging the addiction. For example, Step 4, to make "a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves", and Step 5, to admit "to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs", are doing just this. Making this self-examination would be just as helpful even without the spiritual component.

That being said, believing in something greater than yourself, a power which can help you through the hard times, is very helpful for overcoming addiction and changing old habits. For many people this can be a belief in God or a Higher Power, though it is just as effective to believe in oneself. The only issue with that is, for many people, there is a feeling of disempowerment and hopelessness and lack of faith in self, especially after all this time struggling with an addiction. Essentially, belief is belief, and it seems to be a key component to changing habits and addictions. Sometimes it is easier to believe in something greater that can help when we feel we cannot help ourselves.

All that I've explained so far is talked about in Chapter 3 of The Power of Habit. Now, I am going to explain something not from the book.


Anicca, or "Impermanence", is a Buddhist term and philosophical concept which explains the ephemeral and transient nature of all things in this world. It can be easily explained by the well known saying,

"This too shall pass..."

An understanding of Impermanence is just as helpful as believing in one's ability to overcome adversity, and even as helpful as believing in a Higher Power, when it comes to changing habits and addictions. Notice — and this is a very important point — that belief is not required to understand anicca, because we can see crystal clearly that all things in this world do in fact change. Thoughts, emotions, physical objects, people, bodies, seasons...

Everything changes.

Understanding this on a deep level allows one to make it through very difficult experiences, with the inner knowing that "this too shall pass". One day sad, the next, happy. One day painful, the next, relieved. Nothing in this world is permanent. Take solace in that, and enjoy every moment.

(I will probably devote an entire post, or many, to the concept of anicca, because it is that important and helpful.)


Now, to summarize!

  • The Golden Rule of habit change: Old habits can not be extinguished, only transformed. To change a habit, change the routine.
  • Belief is essential to following through with newly changed habits. When hard times come, it is belief that gets us through.
  • Anicca. Impermanence. All things change, and nothing lasts. Understanding this is as helpful as believing in God and/or yourself when it comes to changing habits.

Thanks for reading! I hope all this helps you and whoever you decide to share it with. Until next time, farewell.


Devin Ryback