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How understanding the habit loop can help your habits stick

If habit change often seems elusive, understanding the habit loop will help make change easier.

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing specific strategies about how to more easily build positive habits, and break negative habits, without relying on willpower and motivation.

And now that you’ve got a few tactics under your belt, I want to take a step back and talk about habits at a higher level.

(Why not start with the underlying philosophy and then move towards tactics, you say? Because we want to bias towards action to get stuff done. You can learn all about the how and why of habits, while you’re already working towards building/breaking them!). So, first things first.

What is a habit?

A habit is simply something you do on auto-pilot. Without thinking about it.

In fact, studies show that approximately 43% of everything we do each day is based in habit. That sounds like a lot, but if you think about it, it makes sense. It would take A LOT of energy to be consciously thinking about every single thing we’re doing all day long. Think about the heavy mental effort it takes, say, to learn to drive a car. But once turning the ignition, pressing the gas, and looking in the rearview are all habit, it’s no longer as mentally taxing and you can use your brain to have a conversation (hands-free of course) without worrying that you’ll crash.

So, a habit is an automated behavior, but if you’re thinking there must be more to it than that, you’re right. In comes the habit loop (see diagram above).

Researchers at MIT identified the brain patterns that create this loop and Charles Duhigg, popularized this theory in his wonderful book “The Power of Habit”.

The habit loop consists of:

  • Trigger (or cue): the environment or circumstance that leads to the routine
  • Routine: a behavior or set of automated behavior that occur after being triggered or cued
  • Reward: the response your brain gets out of the routine

When we’re trying to build or break habits, it’s extremely hard to change the whole loop at once, so many of the strategies I’ve outline in the previous posts aim to attack just one part of the loop at a time.

For instance, if you decide you’d like to stop drinking a glass of wine when you finish work, one of the easiest ways to do this is to use the strategy of replacement. You’ll decide to drink a mocktail instead of wine, so, you’re just altering the routine. You still have the same trigger (finishing work) and a similar reward (having a nice beverage at the end of the day).

When you think about the habits that you’re trying to build or break, consider which piece of the habit loop you are trying to affect. If you’re trying to change too many part of the loop at once, pare back.

How do I choose which habits to focus on?

The psychologist Susan David points out that if you want to change your habits, it’s crucial that you choose habits that are connected to your values. So, if someone else wants you to do it, or you feel pressured, but the new habit is something that you actually don’t care much about, it’s not gonna happen. If you want to make change, it need to be a “want to” not a “have to”. To say this more succinctly, “shoulds” don’t work.

Choose habits that you actually care about, that are connected to who you are or who you want to be.

If a behavior is automatic, and I do it without thinking, how do I change it?

As Viktor Frankl said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

But how do you find that space? The first step is simply awareness. If you bring your attention to the thing you want to change, you will start to notice yourself doing it in the moment, instead of after you’ve already done it. When you notice it in the moment, you have an opportunity to stop and expand that space so that it is wide enough to make a choice.

In a trick I learned from Shirzad Chamine, you can find this space by getting out of your head and into your body for just a few seconds when you first notice yourself doing something you are actively trying to change.

So, notice, then take a few deep breaths, or rub your hands together, or listen intently for a few seconds (at what? anything!). Get out of your head and into your body. (And, that’s about the most woo-woo thing you’re ever gonna hear me say!)

Then make the choice. The choice that is closest to your values. To who and what you want to become.

As you make the new choice over and over again, the new choice starts to become the automated behavior. Your neural pathways start to support you, and you no longer have to work so hard.

James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits”, says “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” And I’ve always loved that quote. I don’t think what I’m about to say is exactly what he meant, but here’s why I like it: Because it simply means you just have to make the “right” choice, 51% of the time. You just need to tip the scales. You don’t need to be perfect 100% of the time to build good habits. Just most of the time.

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