The Power of Habit – Is This the Key to Teshuva?

When I first heard the idea my reaction was very negative.

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings.

We think about what we are doing.

We weigh the options and then we act.

Not Rational

However, a Duke University researcher claims that more than 40% of the things you and me do each day are not rational decisions.

We are acting based on the habits we’ve formed since childhood.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we can change those habits.

I’ve been reading the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s been a real eye-opener.

I just found a short video from the author of The Power of Habit explaining how he used the methods he describes in the book to lose 12 pounds. You can watch it at the bottom of this post.
It’s always satisfying to hear feedback from my posts here on Thinking Torah.

Here’s the pat on the back I got from author Charles Duhigg:

Charles Duhigg says thank you

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The Habit Loop

Fortunately, on one level, it’s not hard to change a habit.

All we have to understand is what Duhigg calls the habit loop.

The habit loop is the sequence of
cue -> routine -> reward
that we’ve formed because we’ve repeated the pattern often enough.

A great example is tying your shoes.

As a kid it was a major challenge to learn how to correctly tie your shoes. (Yes, I mean before velcro “laces” happened to kids shoes.)

Now you can do it without a second thought. Even without velcro.

That’s a useful habit.

Of course, not all habits are useful. How about the habit of eating a bag of cookies when you feel upset?

Your boss yells at you (your cue). You’re upset and grab a bag of chocolate chip cookies (your routine). During and after eating you feel better (your reward).

When we’re faced with our cue, we do the routine that gives us our reward.

The reward can be as simple as the satisfaction of knowing your shoes will stay tied. Or it can be the feeling of consolation that comes from eating a bag of cookies.


There’s another aspect of the habit loop.

It takes more than the
cue -> routine -> reward
to create a habit.

What’s also needed is a craving. It’s when you and I crave the reward that we will form a permanent habit.

If you feel unloved after your boss yells at you and eating the cookies seems to fill that lack, then you can develop a habit of eating cookies at such times.

This can also explain why some people develop a habit of exercising regularly.

Many people start an exercise routine but don’t keep up with it.

Researchers in New Mexico discovered that those who started to crave the reward that came with exercise were more likely to continue the routine.

The craving can take various forms such as “I feel good after I exercise.”

“I feel a sense of accomplishment after exercise.”

“My clothes fit better now that I’m exercising.”

All that matters is that the craving is something
important to you.

The Golden Rule

The next key to understanding habits is to understand the Golden Rule …

We all have habits that we want to change.

I’m sure when you look at your life (just like when I look at mine), you’re not happy with everything about yourself.

How often have you thought, “Why did I do that again?”

This is especially the case when I fall back into a habit that I thought I’d conquered.

It turns out, we can’t wipe out our old habits.

They are always lurking beneath the surface.

Remember, our habits are based on the habit loop:
cue -> routine -> reward.

Researchers have found that the best way to change a habit is to substitute a new routine for the old routine.

Before I wrote about this habit loop:
Your boss yells at you (your cue). You’re upset and grab a bag of chocolate chip cookies (your routine). During and after the eating you feel better (your reward).

Often the cue is beyond your control. Your boss will yell at you at times.

Also, the reward you want may not be unreasonable. It’s OK to want to feel better.

But maybe you realize that eating a bag of chocolate chip cookies is not the best way to get your reward.

What you can do is find a new routine that can be a substitute for eating. Perhaps after your boss yells you can watch funny cat videos for 15 minutes.

Or go for a walk around the block.

In many ways it doesn’t matter what you substitute.

The substitute routine needs to be one that can give you a similar reward you got from the old routine.

So what’s the Golden Rule of Habit Change?

It turns out, you have to believe you can change.

You will only change if you think it’s possible.

Fortunately, all of the evidence is that change is possible. Alcoholics stop drinking. Smokers stop smoking. People stop biting their nails.

This isn’t a claim that change is always easy.

It can be very hard.

But, hard is not the same as impossible.

Teshuva – Repentance

In the title of this article I raised the question: Is this the key to teshuva?

We all know that a critical aspect of teshuva is resolving to not repeat the sin.

We all know how hard that is.

It could be that many of the sins we commit each year are the result of habits.

I think the understanding of habits learned from The Power of Habit can give us all a powerful tool to examine our lives and change for the better.

The book is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Buy it and read it. Study it. You’ll thank me for it.

Your Turn

Here’s the short video from the author, Charles Duhigg:

UPDATE: Sorry. The last time I checked the video is no longer available.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Habit – Is This the Key to Teshuva?”

    • Thank you. You’re right, it can take a lot of time to write these articles. I’m glad you found them interesting.

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