It’s amazing how habits form. Oatmeal cookies with a dollop of peanut butter on top. Six of them, to be exact. I would come home from work, head to the kitchen, grab the cookies, the peanut butter, and a knife and start spreading. It was like clockwork. Those of you familiar with the FitMethod will know that this habit took me “off plan” very quickly. Something had to change.
I picked up Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, and found the information very helpful. Duhigg describes what he calls the “habit loop,” which consists of three parts:
- a cue, which tells your brain to go into automatic mode
- a routine or habitual sequence of actions
- a reward, which is the satisfaction you feel or the value you get from following the cue and completing the routine
Over time, our brains create a special association between the cue and the reward, such that we perform the routine without thinking about it. In other words, THE CUE BECOMES A CRAVING FOR THE REWARD, and an unconscious habit is born.
According to Duhigg, to change a habit you must “interrupt” the habit loop by creating a new routine. This requires that you identify each component of your habit loop and create a plan to help you alter the routine. Here’s how I worked through my habit using Duhigg’s four-step process.
- Identify the routine
In my case, the routine was to arrive home, take off my shoes and back pack, head to the kitchen, plant myself in front of the cabinet where the cookies, peanut butter and knife were all within arm’s reach, and start spreading and eating until I polished off six.
- Experiment with rewards
The reward part of the habit loop is our return on investment–our pay-off for following the cue and completing the routine. There has to be a pay-off, or we wouldn’t complete the routine. Sometimes, it is difficult to determine exactly what the reward is. In my case, for example, the reward could be any of these:
- the taste of cookies and peanut butter
- a temporary distraction from trying to keep our dog, Max, from jumping on our kids and chewing my house to shreds
- relief from a long day at work
- a boost of energy from raising my blood sugar
- satiation of hunger
If we really stop to think about it, though, we can figure it out. I love the taste for sure, but for me the real reward was gaining some temporary relief from my daily stresses. A great place to start identifying your reward is to ask, “What pleasure am I seeking?” or “What relief am I looking for?”
- Isolate the cue
Cues can also be hard to identify. Duhigg notes, however, that almost all cues fit into one of five categories. Ask yourself these questions and look for consistent patterns to better understand your cues.
- Location: Where are you?
The proximity and convenience of my cookies, peanut butter, and knife are examples of location. We often eat things because they are there and they are handy, not because we actually want them.
- Immediately preceding event: What action preceded the urge?
Taking a smoking break every time you finish drinking a coffee is an example of an immediately preceding event.
- Time: What time is it?
Heading for a snack at the same time each afternoon is a clear example of a time cue.
- Emotional state: What is your emotional state?
Stress and boredom are common cues for bad habits, and as noted earlier, the emotional state of stress turned out to be the cue in my habit loop.
- Other people: Who else is around?
Social connections have a huge influence on habits. For example, do you have a friend who with whom you always end up eating?
- Make a plan
Once you have identified the parts of your habit loop, Duhigg asserts that you can change your behaviour by planning a new routine. Remember: Habits are choices that were once deliberately made. Over time, they became unconscious and ingrained.
In my case, changing my environment (location) wasn’t feasible, because my kids enjoy the cookies too. Time, events, and people weren’t an issue, so my new plan was to gradually reduce the number of cookies I ate. I could also have changed my routine by going to a different room when I got home, but I knew that if I maintained the reward of relief, it would make it easier to create a new habit of fewer cookies. It worked. Cookie by cookie, I changed the habit. I still enjoy cookies after work, but now it’s not automatic eating, and it’s not as many.
So the good news is, it is possible to form and maintain new habits. What is even more encouraging is that once we create a new pattern, it becomes as automatic as any other habit.
Changing habits starts with a question. It becomes reality with conscious awareness and new actions based on a good plan. You have the tools. Sharpen them up and start to use them!