Are You Stuck in a Habit Loop?
Understanding how your brain process and rewards behaviors is important to breaking old habits and creating new ones. A new way to approach it is look at your habit loops. A habit loop is a behavior cycle that we continue made up of three sequences.
The cue – think of it as a trigger. It provokes the behavior. For example, the chime reminding you to put your seat belt on is an external cue. Internal cues are connected to your mood. For some, depression or sadness may lead to stopping by McDonalds for a big mac and fries.
The behavior – typically thought of as a habit. It is an action completed in a sequence. It could be a simple routine such as flossing, brushing your teeth, rinsing with mouthwash, and then washing your face all in that order prior to going to bed.
The reward – helps your behavior stick. It is the feeling you get after completing the behavior. For long distance runners the immediate endorphin rush, or “runners high”, is enough of a reward for them to continue the routine. Similarly, for smokers, even though the serious health risks is known, the immediate reward felt in the brain is big enough your “will” is reduced and you continue the behavior.
Once you understand your habit loops, you can start to make changes. Start with breaking old habits and creating new ones.
Breaking old habits
Substitute a new behavior with something that provides the same reward.
1. Identify the cue, behavior, and reward.
You see a commercial with an amazing looking ice cream cone. Later, you drive by your favorite ice cream shop. Your brain is reminded of the commercial (the cue), with or without you being aware of it. You stop in for a cone (the behavior.) The ice cream tastes delicious and makes you feel relaxed (the reward.) Next time you drive by the ice cream shop stop again for a cone.
2. Change the behavior, but maintain the same cue and reward.
Next time you drive by the ice cream shop, keep driving and decide to do something else to relax; take a hot bath at home instead, drink your favorite cup of tea, or call someone you enjoy talking with.
Creating new habits
Use the habit loop to create a new habit based on what you are wanting for yourself.
1. Establish your goal. Be sure your goal has realistic milestones. If you want to lose 50 pounds, start with 5 pounds the first month and move onward.
2. Identify what motivates you. This is connected to your reward. Focus on what motivates you deep inside, and consider other motivators such as serious health risks. If fitting into your tight jeans keeps you focused on weight loss – great!
3. Pick a behavior that supports your goal. List a few actions that may help you achieve what you want, then choose one. If you want to lose weight, maybe choose from walking 10,000 steps a day, eating smaller portions, or getting more sleep. Select one and create a habit in that area first.
4. Create a cue – reward process. Once you choose your action that supports your goal, create a reminder and a reward. If you decide to walk 10,000 steps a day, use a device to ping you to get up every hour or two and walk for 5-10 minutes. At the end of the day, mark you completed 10,000 steps in a journal and once completed all week, you get to go to the spa.
5. Reduce barriers. Find out what may stop you from meeting your goal, and brainstorm how to get around it. If you can’t walk safely or comfortably at your workplace, make sure you can at home.
6. Follow-up. Have someone to report back to. It helps you stay on track. Discuss your goals with a family member, health coach, or friend. Tell them you want to be held accountable for that goal and check-in often with progress updates.
Practice this new habit loop when you want to achieve anything….small or big…and notice the change you create in your life.