You’ve made the decision, enough is enough, today will be my day, this year will be my year. So you make a commitment. No more pointless arguments, time to throw those cookies in the bin and you make the promise to yourself that you will live a happier, healthier life. You’re on your way. But what you don’t realize, is that these things cannot really be changed overnight. Why? Because they’re ingrained in your behavioral repertoire, they have become automatic responses to certain cues. To make a real, long-lasting change, we need to destroy this involuntary behavior.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Will Durant
Step 1: Know Yourself – Identify the Routine
The first step in this process comes back to that all-important concept, self-awareness. Be aware of your life, and some of the behaviors that it encapsulates. Identify a specific detrimental routine. Perhaps you go for a cheeky snack every day at work or become over aggressive in certain discussions. Maybe you get home and turn on the television instantly. Whatever it is, first identify the behavioral routine that you wish to change.
Step 2: Apply the Pleasure Principle – Use Rewards
So you have identified the routine. What’s next? You now need to understand the reason for your automatic behavior. But before this, you need to to know that our habits are driven by reward, we crave it, and so behaviors will often remain automatic to satisfy these cravings.
Let me give you an example. Say Bob goes down the pub three nights a week, getting a good two or three pints of lager down him. Why would you say Bob is driven to go down to the pub? I don’t know about you, but my gut reaction would tell me that Bob craves the refreshing taste of lager. This is a perfectly logical explanation, and could easily be the craving that we are looking to identify. But think again, why else would Bob behave in this way? Lightbulb! Of course, perhaps Bob goes down the pub to gain some affection from his friends. In this sense, Bob is craving the attention and love he receives from his buddies, not the lager, and so to fulfill this, goes down the pub. This just shows that the motivation behind your habits might not always be what you would expect.
Alright so this is all well and good, but how can we apply this to our lives? I mean, how are we supposed to know what we crave!? Luckily, there is a simple solution. The best way to understand the true explanation as to why you carry out a behavior is by experimenting with different rewards.
Let’s stick with this example, as I have grown quite fond of Bob. Given our amazing guessing skills, we already know why Bob is carrying out this habit, but just for now, let’s forget that. So we have identified two possible cravings which may be driving this act, lager and social affection. To test which of these is the true criminal, we can set up a little experiment using the same rewards. To test if lager is the problem, Bob decides to stay at home, and treat himself to two alcoholic beverages over the duration of the week. The following week, he then avoids this alcohol but decides to go and whoop his friends at badminton. In this way, we have tested both of these cravings, to determine which is driving Bob’s bad habit. The alcohol, or being with his friends.
Step 3: Classify the Cue – What Makes You do What You do
A cue is a trigger. This is the thing that starts the engine for your body to engage in the behavioral routine. Let’s bring back Bob for the final time! What causes him to engage in his drinking down the pub? It could be anything, but it does often fall into one of 4 categories:
- Location – where are you?
- Time – what is the time?
- Emotional state – how do you feel?
- Other people – is anyone else around you?
For one week Bob notes down the corresponding answer to each of these categories, whenever he feels the need to travel to the pub. Let’s give you an example of a couple of days:
- Location – work
- Time – 5:31pm
- Emotional state – annoyed
- Other people – James
- Location – home
- Time – 8:42pm
- Emotional state – annoyed
- Other people – Max
Although this technique should be deployed over a good week or so, the principle still stands over these two days. What would be your best guess in answering what is triggering Bob’s faulty habit? It’s his emotional state, right? That is the only thing that is consistent across the two days, he feels annoyed! So now we have identified what is causing the activation of this behavior, the loop is completed!
Make a Plan!
With the help of Bob and myself, you have now discovered the wonders of the habit loop. But I’m afraid you’re not done yet. Follow these three steps, and then make your plan. Now Bob has identified each component of his habit loop for going to the pub, he can take action and make a change!
- The cue – feeling annoyed
- The behavioral routine – going to the pub and drinking alcohol
- The reward – social affection
So what can Bob do? He makes his plan. Whenever Bob feels annoyed, he will go and play badminton or squash with one of his friends. Now he has changed his behavioral routine to a healthier one, that still allows the same reward of social affection, and still follows the cue of feeling annoyed!
Take-home message. And that’s the habit loop ladies and gentleman! Now I’m not going to lie, this is not some magic formula that is going to transform your lives instantly. However, it is an effective process in creating a change that lasts over a long time and is by no means temporary. Just remember, resiliency is key. If you hit trouble, get back up and keep moving forward towards your goal!