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Key to Korean #4: Make It a Habit (Habits are Powerful)


Habits are powerful because you don’t even think about them. You just do them.

Have you ever had a time in your life where you argue with yourself over some course of action? I used to do that all the time about exercise or meals. When I first came to Korea, I worked in the evenings at a hagwon, so I tended to sleep in until 10 or 11am, then try to convince myself to get out and exercise – but I usually just stayed in with some TV or Internet. Come lunch time, I started to get hungry, and then had to think about what to eat. Should I go out? Or cook something at home? Did I even have any raw materials at home?

The Typical Pattern without Habit or Plan

Typically, in both cases, the situation would go like this:

  1. Perceive a need or desire, “I should exercise.” Or “I’m hungry.”
  2. Think about what to do, “I could go outside. I like exercising outside.” Or “I could go out to eat. That’s a lot easier than cooking.”
  3. Debate with myself, “I like outside…but inside feels good…sweating feels good too…but there’s a great movie on TV…” etc.
  4. Stand up, gather myself, and forcibly prepare myself to go out (I know it’s better for me anyway).
  5. Second guess myself and debate again, “Hmm…do I really want to go out? If I go out now, that’ll include 10 minutes of walking, plus 5 minutes of waiting in line for food. That’s like 15 minutes! Which means, it’s almost 30 minutes! And after eating, that’s almost a whole hour! Nah, I can’t afford to waste a whole hour. It’ll be better if I stay in and try to cook something…maybe…or maybe not… Nah! I’ll just stay in. Then I can keep watching this cool TV movie…”
  6. Stay in and avoid any action that would have ultimately benefitted me.

The problem with these kinds of situations are two-fold:

  1. You wait until you encounter those situations and the react to them – without a plan. Making a plan means proactively deciding on your action beforehand (we’ll explore this in further detail in a later post).
  2. You have to think about it in the moment. Make it a habit, and your body knows immediately how to react.

Two categories of habits

Bad HabitsGood Habits
Bad habits are the easiest to identify because we typically feel guilty either during or after them.Good habits are more difficult to identify because there is often something preceding these habits that can cause us to hesitate, and we wouldn't necessarily count these as habits anyway (consider the good habit of waking up for work on time).
We are less mentally conscious of bad habits, or we push our awareness of them away. The reward we seek is so powerful and satisfying that we are willing to overlook our own temporary lapse in judgement. We are fully conscious of most of our good habits (like brushing our teeth). In fact, we are so aware of them that sometimes we feel burdened by them and try to discard them temporarily (at least I do).
The reward provides a powerful, temporary rush of great feelings that may prove to be harmful in the long run.The reward usually is fully realized in the long run, and though there may be some short-term benefits, they cannot equal the powerful temporary rewards of bad habits.
If we deny ourselves our bad habits, we feel bad because we've essentially denied ourselves the reward associated with it.If we don't follow through with our good habits, we may not notice right away. There is no immediate pain associated with their absence. Over time, it may become easier to slough off good habits.
One day, 20 years later, we'll look at ourselves in the mirror and think, "Really? Am I still burdened by this bad habit? Haven't I grown up yet?"One day, 20 years later, we'll look at ourselves in the mirror and think, "Really? Did I really let myself go like this? How did it get to this point?"

Three elements of habits

Every habit (good and bad) has the same elements: a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward (researchers have studied this for years).

From: The Power of Habit
From: The Power of Habit
The Cue

The Cue sparks a desire for something (and begins the action of a habit). This can be:

  1. Where you are
  2. How you feel
  3. The time of day
  4. The people around you
  5. The weather
  6. Your stress level
  7. Sights, smells, or sounds

Literally anything can be a Cue, and you have less real control over Cues than you do over the other elements.

The Routine

The Routine is followed by the Cue and is intended to meet the perceived need or desire that the Cue generates. Consider:

  1. You smoke when you’re stressed.
  2. You drink when you’ve had a long day.
  3. You worry more around certain people.
  4. You crave chocolate in the afternoon.
  5. You need coffee in the morning.
  6. You stretch when you’re sore.
  7. You run when you feel fat.

Figure out why you do what you do, and what Cue causes that Routine to begin. Then, you can start to experiment with changing certain elements in your Routine to produce a different Reward.

The Reward

The Reward is the ultimate outcome of your Routine. And as we looked at above, it can often be much more immediately powerful in a bad habit than in a good habit. But, it may not be so beneficial over the long term. For example:

  1. Drinking to release stress feels good. So you drink more to feel better. But the next morning, you feel worse. And 20 years later, you look worse.
  2. Brushing your teeth gives you a clean feeling in your mouth. But so does chewing gum. But 20 years of gum chewing later, you have rotten teeth.
  3. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and you feel the afternoon slump coming. A chocolate or coffee pick-me-up will boost you through the afternoon. But so would an afternoon jog.

As you can see, as each Routine is different, so are the Rewards they produce. But bad habits focus on the here and now – the immediate emotional pick-me-up, while good habits focus on (or at least are targeted toward) the distant (and sometimes imperceivable) future.

Create Good Habits

Ultimately, you can create good habits by knowing and modifying the Habit cycle of Cue, Routine, Reward. In a follow-up post (Friday), we will look at ways you can create good habits (specifically, the good habit of studying Korean).

For more information about The Power of Habit, check out some of these resources from Charles Duhigg:

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