Habits are a powerful thing that make life easier, as they automate things in our lives so that we have to use less brain power on a day to day, minute to minute and second to second basis.
They of course can make things more difficult as they can put us in a loop of detrimental behavior that works away from our ultimate goals. The question that most people have is how to break that “negative” habit loop.
Before we can hack the habit loop the first thing we have to figure out is how the habit loop works. The habit loop is a three step process. First there is a cue, which is a trigger that lets the brain know to go into automatic mode and also lets your brain know which habit to use.
From there we have the routine that we break in to. The routine can be an emotional, physical or mental one. Similar to when we someone sees a McDonalds after getting off work and they pullover and get a quarter pounder with cheese, fries and a sprite.
Then there is the thing that keeps bringing us back for more and that is the reward. You know that feeling you get when you have that beer with friends or the feeling that a slice of apple pie or chocolate may give you or even the feeling of cleanliness that brushing your teeth may give.
When you develop one of these habit loops then your brain can go into autopilot and not truly participate in the entire process and it can divert energy to other tasks.
Here is a habit that maybe you can relate to. I know that I have been here before…. You come home, you are hungry and you are getting ready to prepare dinner so you go to the pantry to get your staples for your healthy dinner. When looking in the pantry you see a box of chocolate candy bars. Despite your best efforts to get the ball moving forward on your weight loss efforts you go ahead and grab and eat a candy bar. It starts as a once a week habit that soon balloons into a 3x/week habit.
So the question is how do we fix this. Well, we have to
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with Rewards
- Isolate the cue
So in the example above, we identified what the routine is.
Now on to experiment with rewards. Rewards help us satisfy cravings, but we often aren’t even aware of the cravings that drive our behavior. If you want to figure out what craving is driving our behavior we have to experiment.
So if I was to use the example above, I may do a day by day experiment. Is low blood sugar driving my craving? Replace your candy with some veggies and nuts and wait 15 minutes. If you are still craving the candy then you know low blood sugar isn’t driving the craving.
Maybe it’s stress, so you can take 5 minutes to meditate and go back to cooking and if you are still craving then it probably isn’t stress. You can continue to move down the line until you figure out what it may be that is driving your routine and where you are getting your reward from.
Another great example is maybe at work you get up at 10 am everyday to go to the water cooler and you grab a donut and chat with colleagues. After doing your experiments you may come to realize that the real reward for you is chatting with friends and not the feeling the donut gives you, low blood sugar or something else.
Now we must Isolate the cue. Is it time of day, where you are in the house, how you are feeling, what emotional state you are in, what action you took that preceded the event, etc. Once you have isolated the cue you can develop a plan.
Your plan should look like this to replace the old habit. Once I have my cue, I will do this routine in order to get this reward. In my example above. Let’s say my cue was going to the pantry, then once I get to the pantry I would replace it with a new routine of eating a handful of nuts and then my reward would be the same elevated blood sugar levels (assuming that was the actual reward from before).
I hope this helps and if you want a really great book on Habits then check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.