Don’t lie. We’ve all been here. “Yeah bro, I’ll finish it later don’t worry about it.” The next thing you know, it’s 11:37pm and you’re rushing to meet the task deadline. Why is that we do this? Is there a way to change this terrible habit of ours?
Our life is driven by our habits. Everything we do, from the smallest of the small to the biggest of the big is, in large part, controlled by our unconscious habits. The crazy thing is that most of the time we don’t even realize it! Most have never even considered altering or transforming their habits for the better. Luckily, this article will go over exactly how habits work and how we can use that understanding to our advantage.
I’ll be covering one of the main points of the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.
Why do we even have habits in the first place?
Our brains are super lazy. They are constantly looking for ways to find the path of least resistance, to find the most efficient method to accomplish something. That’s why we have habits, which help lighten the strain on our brain by helping us to carry out our numerous daily tasks that we don’t even think about anymore.
There are hundreds of behavioral patterns that are carried out by us every day. Some are simple: brushing our teeth, washing our face, tying our shoes. Others can be more complex: getting dressed, making lunch, writing an article.
Some are so complicated, that it’s incredible that we can do them without thinking! Let’s say you’re backing your car out of the driveway in the morning. When you first started to learn this, it took a great amount of concentration in order to be successful: You had to open the garage, unlock the car door, adjust the seat, insert the key in the ignition, turn it clockwise, move the mirrors, check the obstacles, put your foot on the brake, move the gearshift into reverse, remove your foot from the brake, mentally estimate the distance from the garage to the street while you simultaneously keep watch for oncoming traffic, calculate distances of your car to the trash can, hedges, bumper, and all the while telling your mom to please calm down and assure her that you’re not going to crash.
Whew, that was a lot.
However, when you back your car out of the driveway now, you hardly have to think about any of these things anymore. This is all because of the habits that our brain has formed.
As we got more and more used to this morning process, our basal ganglia (a part in our brain) began to take over, identifying the habit that we’ve gotten so used to and executing the pattern for us. Once this occurs, we’re free to think about other urgent thoughts, such as how we’re going to pass the math test we didn’t study for last night (oops).
The Habit Loop
Habits, if you break them down, are a pretty simple process. It involves a three-step process that consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward.
Cue, Routine, Reward
To begin with, a cue is a trigger that causes our brains to go into an automatic mode and call upon an action. For instance, if a rat hears a meow, the cue, it automatically knows to activate its “flight” habit. If a dog sees a bird, the cue, it automatically activates its “chase” habit. Whatever it is, all habits start off with a trigger cue that begins it.
After the cue is the routine. The routine is what action our brain tells us to do once the cue is triggered. For instance, this may be the whole process of backing a car out of the driveway after getting into the car. Or it could be your whole morning routine after your alarm sounds.
Finally, the habit loop ends with a reward. A reward is returned to the brain after every habit is carried out, and this is what the brain uses to determine if the habit is worth saving down or not. For instance, if you decide to exercise one day, then later reward yourself with a quick snack, your brain might decide that this habit (exercising) is worth storing in order so that you get the award (the snack) again next time.
Effect of Habit Loop
As you begin learning and storing these habits, your brain decides to stop the decision-making process for these actions which allows you to divert your focus to another task. Though this is beneficial for conserving energy and effort, it also makes it much harder for us to change our habits.
Unless you intentionally fight against a habit and find new routines, a habit pattern will be carried out almost automatically every time you encounter a cue. This explains why it is so hard to create a good exercise habit, for instance, or to stay on a good diet.
Once we begin to develop the habit of sitting down on the couch after work rather than going out for a light jog, those patterns remain inside our heads, and it can be difficult to try and fix them.
However, using the same principles you just learned about the habit loop, we can learn to overpower these behaviors and create new positive habits!
The Craving Brain
Before we start on changing our habits, we need to focus on one more crucial aspect of the habit loop that wasn’t mentioned before. Cravings! As habits begin to build and get stronger and stronger within your mind, you begin to start to crave and anticipate the rewards before you receive them.
How It Works
When you first start to build a habit, you go through the normal cue routine reward cycle. As this cycle gradually builds up, however, you start to anticipate the reward more and more, to the point where your brain starts associating the cue with the reward without actually receiving the reward.
Researchers have discovered that once this habit and craving are firmly ingrained in one’s brain, it can be hard to change. The anticipation may become so overwhelming that it becomes all a person can think about, which leads to addiction of all sorts (both good and bad).
This explains why these habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings.
Cinnabon Kiosk Placement
One fascinating way that this is employed in real life is with the placement of Cinnabon stores. Normally, food vendors try to position their kiosks in or near the food court. However, Cinnabon stores do the exact opposite, and try to put their stores away from all the other food stalls. This way, the smells of the other stores are not distracting from theirs.
Why do they do this? To create a craving.
Let’s say a consumer is walking down a hallway, maybe just trying to pick out a present for his mom. As he is walking, the scent of the cinnamon rolls wafts down his hallway and starts to subconsciously cause his mind to crave a roll. His mind begins to crave the reward of a roll (the sugar high) without him realizing it. By the time he finally rounds the corner and sees the Cinnabon store (cue), the craving is roaring in his mind, and he automatically goes to pull out his wallet to buy one. All this happened because of his habit loop.
Cravings are what drives the habit loop. The basic habit loop is employed when a person is just starting to learn and memorize the habit. The habit only truly emerges once a person begins craving the reward once they see the cue. Once that craving exists, the person will react and carry out their habit loop automatically.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Great, you might say. Now that I know all about habit loops and cravings, how do I change my habits for the better? It’s a pretty simple process. To change an old habit, you have to first address the old craving. You can do so by creating a new habit loop with the same cues and rewards as before, but with a different routine. Researchers have discovered that habits are malleable when employing this technique.
Mandy’s Nail-Biting Problem
One example of this principle in play was with a graduate student named Mandy. She had long struggled with nail-biting and had gone to therapy to try and fix this problem. After talking about it, she had discovered that the reward from her nail-biting habit was a physical simulation that she had come to crave.
Her therapist then told her that whenever she felt tension in her fingertips (cue), she should look for a quick physical stimulation, such as rapping her knuckles on the table or rubbing her fingers on her arm. Consequently, her nail-biting habit was gone after a month.
This was a perfect example of the golden rule of habit change in place. In both habit loops, Mandy kept the same cue (tension in fingertips) and reward (physical stimulation). Only the routine changed, from nail-biting to another form of quick physical stimulation. Because of this, Mandy was able to replace her old negative habit loop with a better one.
The Habit Loop
As you can see, the process itself is pretty simple if you want to change a habit. You discover what reward you are craving from the habit, and replace the old routine with a new and better one that provides the same reward.
Of course, you will need to genuinely believe change is possible, and be intentional about working on overcoming your bad habit. But now knowing about how a habit loop works should allow you to become more aware of your own choices.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change: The simple rule that will allow you to form positive habits whenever you need them. What habits will you change?
- Habits reduce the strain on our brain
- The habit loop is driven by cue, routine, reward loop
- Cravings drive the habit loop
- We can replace a bad habit with the Golden Rule of Habit Change, in which we form a new habit loop with the same cues and rewards as before, but with a different routine