Jan 072014

We are all just habits strung together!!

While reading, The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg, I was intrigued to start breaking done my routines and pay attention to my habits.  Here is a brief breakdown of part of the work that he presents in his book.

The framework:

Identify the routine

Experiment with rewards

Isolate the cue

Have a plan


STEP ONE: Identify the Routine

MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. A cue, a routine and a reward make up every habit loop.

To understand your own habits, begin to identity any behaviors that you would like to change.

For example: I eat cookies or other sweet foods when I am not hungry. As much as I try to muster up will power to not do this I still continue. I promise myself that I will not do it again tomorrow….hmmmm

So, I wanted to change this habit of eating cookies because it’s not good for my waistline or my health.

So, step 1 – focus on the routine – aka behavior – you want to change

Ask yourself questions as to what cues begin this habit and what the reward is for doing the certain routine

Cues: boredom, frustration, low blood sugar, hunger, fatigue, need a break

Rewards: The cookie itself? Temporary distraction? Change of scenery?

My cue for getting this cookie/sweet snack was when I got frustrated (my kids not listening to me) or when I felt over whelmed, the cookie soothed me…or so I lead myself to believe that a cookie would solve this situation and then the habit got ingrained and became an unconscious reaction.

STEP TWO: Experiment with rewards

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we are often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviours.

Don’t be in a hurry to change your routine; however, begin to notice which cravings are driving particular habits. Notice your rewards and experiment with them.

On the first day of your experiment when you get the urge to follow a routine that you want to change (i.e. eating a cookie), adjust your routine to see if you get the same reward.

So instead of eating the cookie because for example you feel frustrated, over the next 4 times you get this urge, try one of these rewards instead and notice how you feel.

  1.  Eat an apple
  2. Go for a walk
  3. Take deep breathes
  4. Call a friend

Test four or five different rewards to see which craving is driving your routine.

  1. If it’s hunger the apple should work instead of the cookie
  2. Do I need a burst of energy because taking deep breathes would work
  3. Do I need a distraction – then calling a friend would work

Begin to look for patterns. After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when have tried your new reward. The three things can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections of your feelings or any three words.

Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it beeps, ask yourself if you still want the cookie.

Why is this important?

  1.  It forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling (i.e. if you are a nail biter, every time you bite your nails mark it down so that you can become aware of how many times you are doing it. Then if you write down three words you begin to become conscious of what you are thinking and feeling in that precise instant)
  2. Waiting 15 minutes allows you time to see if your reward worked. If, 15 minutes after eating the cookie, you feel an urge to have a moment to yourself because you are still frustrated, than you know that your habit isn’t motivated by a sugar craving. If after calling a friend, you still want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn’t what’s driving your behavior.

On the other hand, if 15 minutes after taking 5 deep breaths, you find it easier to relax and not be frustrated, then you have learned a way to satisfy the habit.

By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.

STEP THREE: Isolate the Cue

Isolating cues to our habits can be very tricky because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviours unfold. Ask yourself, do I eat lunch every day because it’s noon, or am I hungry or because your family is eating? This is when your lunch habit kicks in.

So, break it down in order to see the patterns.

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional state
  4. Other people
  5. Immediately preceding action

So if you are trying to figure out the cue for eating the cookie, write down these five things when the urge hits. Do this for 3-5 days to identify the cue to your habit.

STEP FOUR: Have a Plan

Now that you have figured out your habit loop – the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behavior.

Remember that a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows – when I see a cue, I will do the routine in order to get the reward. It is a choice that we deliberately make at some point and then stop thinking about it, but continue to do.

Having a plan, or what psychology calls “implementation intentions” will allow you to form a new habit loop.

Old habit:

My cue was my children not listening to me, and my routine was to eat a cookie (or other sweet item) to stop feeling frustrated.  What I learned was, it wasn’t the cookie I craved but rather the time to myself – a moment of distraction.

Plan to change habit:

When my kids were not listening to me, to remove myself from the situation and take 5 deep breaths.

It didn’t work immediately.  Sometimes I would eat the cookie and then remind myself to breath. Sometimes I would look at the cookie and breath. Eventually I would implement breathing more than eating the cookie (although there is the odd time I fall back into my old habit). And other times I would choose to have a cup of tea and sit down.

When you get to the point that you don’t have to think about what your routine is, you have formed your new habit.

Some habits are going to require repeated experiments. Expect failure as you rewire your habit loop.  But keep in mind how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it.


Happy Habit Changing!! Need a great new HABIT, join the exercise classes at Move Your Body Studio, www.moveyourbody.ca for classes

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