Change your Habits and Win

Last month I achieved the highest win-rate of any player in my game: 18 bb/100! It’s probably the highest win-rate I have ever reached. What’s my secret? I changed my habits.

Also, understand that while this is a poker strategy blog, even non-poker players could use these techniques to overcome bad habits and start good ones. Feel free to share this information with anyone you know that’s trying hard to make a positive change.

August 2015 graph

My Story

The summer was fun! One of the best ones yet. But along with all of the social gatherings and events came a sub-optimal lifestyle in terms of healthy living. I fell into a habit of daily drinking. Mostly it was a glass of wine on the deck to unwind after a stressful day, but then there would be the more than occasional weekend party binge.

For many, this is a sustainable lifestyle and perhaps a consciously chosen coping mechanism, but not for me. I have big dreams. I plan to be a world class poker player. This endeavor necessitates peak performance which is not achievable given any kind of drinking habit. So I changed!

It wasn’t easy, but there were two books that really helped: the Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, (a Stanford professor) and the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (an award-winning New York Times reporter). I’m going to summarize the concepts and techniques I learned and applied, but then I encourage you to check out the books for more detail.

The Anatomy of a Habit

Per wikipedia: “a habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously.” The operative word there is “unconsciously”. That’s what makes them so damn hard to change. Brute force fails, because we can’t directly access our subconscious. Instead we must identify the factors of our environment in which a habit occurs and then manipulate those factors.

We can further describe a habit as being comprised of three things: a cue, a routine and a reward.

The Habit Cycle

In my case, the cue seemed to be the completion of a long poker session. My routine was to go out on to the deck at the end of the day and have a drink. My reward was a sense of relaxation and stress relief. Unfortunately this would also hurt my sleep quality and lead to mental “fogginess” in the morning as well as increased moodiness.

Another significant element to habits is the underlying craving. I’m sure you all know what I mean: that emotional pull of desire that mounts when the habit goes unsatisfied, until our willpower is overcome.

How to Change your Habits

Smart scientists and researchers have figured out that the only way to change a habit is to replace the routine, but to keep the same cue and reward . This way you still are able to satisfy the craving with the same reward but using a different, hopefully healthier routine. Then eventually the cravings dissipate.

The specific steps are as follows:

  1. experiment with rewards
  2. isolate the cue
  3. form a plan

Experiment with Rewards

Given a routine you want to change, the first step is to figure out what is truly satisfying your craving. It may not be what you think.

This is where you get to play scientist and have some fun. Create a list of all of the obvious things and the less obvious that might be giving you the sense of satisfaction: the reward. Then each day try a different routine that satisfies a reward from your list and note whether you quench the craving.

For me, I wasn’t sure if the reward was the chemical effect of the alcohol, the act of going outside, the coinciding conversation with my wife or something else.

Our Deck

Our Deck

I tried activities that focused on each one individually and documented the results. This included among other things: having a drink on the deck without Melanie, having a drink inside instead of outside, and going into the yard and juggling instead of having a drink. Ultimately I figured out that the juggling worked! Something about the physical activity and the outdoors helped me calm down and clear my mind.

If you try this, don’t forget to jot down your results each day. Once you’ve completed the activity, you need to capture what you’re thinking and feeling. Perhaps try some stream of conscious writing. Once you’ve finished writing, check in one more time on the sense of craving and note whether it’s present. If so, you could write down its intensity level: 1 to 4 for example.

After this experimentation, you should better understand the underlying craving and have some alternative routine(s) that can help satisfy it. But we’re not done. You still need to figure out the cue that sets off your unconscious habit. This too can be tricky.

Isolate the Cue

We often catch ourselves doing our habit without even realizing it. There is indeed a trigger, and we must identify it so that we know when to implement our new routine.

Again those clever folks in lab coats come to our rescue. Here’s a list of typical types of triggers:

1. Location
2. Time
3. Emotional State
4. Other People
5. Immediately Preceding Action

Start writing down details about these 5 items every time you feel the craving. Here’s my example:

Day 1

Where are you? (in my living room)
What time is it? (5:15 pm)
Emotional state? (exhausted)
Other people? (wife is home)
Immediate preceding action? (streaming poker online)

Day 2

Where are you? (at my computer)
What time is it? (2:15 pm)
Emotional state? (drained and annoyed)
Other people? (alone)
Immediate preceding action? (finished a bunch of lessons)

Day 3

Where are you? (bathroom)
What time is it? (3:45 pm)
Emotional state? (tired)
Other people? (alone)
Immediate preceding action? (streaming poker)

And so on.

For me this process was interesting because initially I thought the trigger was time related: the end of the day. However upon further investigation I discovered that the most persistent environmental factor was my emotional state. I was mentally exhausted. Usually I would be distracted by my work up until the end of the day and then once I finished, the exhaustion hit me. But sometimes, the craving for alcohol would come mid-day if I had a particularly challenging morning.

Also, this kind of realization can be empowering! The awareness creates space between the cue and the routine so it is less automatic, and you can now make a choice.

Form a plan

Armed with knowledge, we can begin to change the behavior. Remember that our bad habit is simply a cue that triggers a routine that results in a reward that satisfies a craving. Now we know what these all are and have an idea of what we can do differently.

JugglingMy action plan is that throughout the day I take frequent breaks where I go outside in the yard and juggle (or practice on the slackline). Most importantly at the end of the day, when I’m most drained, I head outside for some time with the clubs. I’m proud to say that I haven’t had a drink for many weeks, AND I’m becoming an excellent juggler!

The Magic Bullet of Belief

One more thing I read worth mentioning is the importance of belief. Research shows that those who were most successful in overcoming their habits or addictions tended to strongly believe they could do it. For some, this involved a kind of religious belief, but for others it was purely personal.

It may sound difficult to make yourself believe if you currently lack the confidence. Just know that it is possible. People do choose to believe. Take inspiration from the success stories of others.

The Immaculate Routine

Our daily routine is made up of hundreds of micro- and macro-habits that help us function efficiently. After all, we wouldn’t get very far if we had to consciously consider each individual step to lacing our shoes, motoring our legs, and driving our car. Yet there are still plenty of smaller sub-optimal habits and inefficiencies you could reformulate given proper awareness and consideration.

At the beginning, I attributed my recent success with poker to changing habits, and then I told the story of quitting alcohol. This of course is not the sole contributor. Rather I have deconstructed my day and applied this habit changing framework to both my poker and non-poker activities. My intention is to create the perfect poker routine, and I’m getting closer.

Tilt is a Bad Habit

For my fellow poker people, you could even use this process to tackle tilt. What is the cue that sets you off? What do you do when you tilt (i.e. what is the routine?) And how does this satisfy the emotional pull that arises? What might you do differently?

If you’d like some more ideas, read my top 10 tips on tilt.

Do Share

I’ve shared with you a personal account of some recent positive life changes. I hope it’s helpful. And I’d love to hear your story if you try these techniques. We can use this space (via the comments below) to delve deeper into this process and perhaps further support and inspire each other.

If you know someone else that might benefit from this information, please share it with them too.

  • Junglefever1121

    Great Article Mike! The willingness to change is simply be aware and change it. the guts to be you. I always say to people if love is the most important thing in life,(it contributes to everything we do or don’t) only when we really understand the interactions of our selves with our environment we will be successfully balanced without negative compensation data involved.
    By the way…. your deck is awesome! Purple is powerful! it remembers also how profitable poker is playing maniac purples!

    • Jungle – you are quite the philosopher! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
      And yeah we just “upgraded” our deck scene this summer. Hard to leave that space now.
      If you like purple, just wait ’til you see my new site redesign for pokerinabox!

  • Nice read Mike! very empowering!

  • Skilful

    Really useful article. I am just about to restart a campaign at making some serious progress with my game and 80% of my success will come down to how well I am able to change my habits. Thanks for sharing. I read this a few weeks ago and just came back to take some notes.

    • Awesome-sauce! I wish you success my friend.

      It continues to astound me the MASSIVE difference in my performance when I have all my habits in check (in with the good and out with the bad). We’re not talking 1 or 2 bb/100. We’re talking CRUSHING and breaking even.

      I couldn’t agree more with you. Tackling your habits is one of the best moves you can make with your game.

      • Skilful

        Thanks Mike, and it’s funny you should start with such a cool phrase, because Awesome is the word that features most prominently on my new campaign at victory – I’ve discussed your blog post in my intro article too. Thanks again for the excellent article, and have a great weekend!

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  • Serge

    Great read again…!

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