Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

For better or worse, habits take the work out of decision-making. They streamline behaviors to free you from the mental heavy lifting of making a choice. Habits are “free” and require very little energy. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Here’s how you can start rebuilding your habits to create a happier, healthier you.

Welcome to the Power of Habits

Habit creates easy repetition of the behavior(s) connected to the habit. This streamlines our lives so that tasks we need or want to do repeatedly and in a certain sequence get easier and easier to do.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg lays out a simple yet powerful format for habits called the “habit loop.” It is a framework for understanding the structure of any habit. According to Duhigg, our habits are constructed of three elements:

CUE >> Routine >> Reward

  • Cue = The trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  • Routine = The behavior—the habit—which can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  • Reward = The good feeling that comes after the routine.

Habits are so powerful because they create neurological cravings—a desire in your brain. New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

A cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the rush or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

Hack Your Habits

To hack your habits, you need to insert a new routine in the Cue >> Routine >> Reward habit loop we identified earlier.

Step 1 – Know Your Cue

Your first step is identifying your cue. Remember, a habit is a labor-saving tool for your brain. The routine or behavior is often the easiest part to identify, while the cue is less obvious. The tricky part then is figuring out the cue that triggers the behavior. You might be aware that you have a habit/routine of eating a nightly bowl of ice cream, but you may have no idea what the cue is.

It might be that you turn the TV on to relax and the soothing coolness of ice cream begins to create the craving. Or perhaps it signals a shift in your day from the time of responsibilities to the time of relaxation and fun, because sweets are often used in celebratory occasions. Look for patterns in your behavior and make note of them (yes, write them down).

Whatever habit you are seeking to change or develop, you must know the cue that starts the habit. This awareness comes from paying attention to the things you do (rather than doing them mindlessly).

Step 2 – Change the Routine

Do something different in the middle step—the routine. Instead of turning on the TV, have a short talk with your family members or friends about which TV shows are your all-time favorites. Or if you are alone, do something fun and physical for even just a few minutes before switching on the TV. Both may give you the same sense of satisfaction, happiness and relaxation you previously got from the ice cream or wine.

Or they may not.

In which case, you try something else. Experiment on yourself. You know yourself better than anyone else. There are countless ways to change a behavior to get the same reward. Simply keep experimenting until you figure it out.

What you actually do instead of eating the ice cream is less important than continuing to try  different things until you find you create a suitable reward.

The Steps in the Real World

As identified in The Power of Habit, almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

These categories can help you begin to develop awareness about the circumstances surrounding various habits you already have established. Once you notice a craving or urge strike you, take note of these five things:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

As with everything in life, the more you do this, the easier it gets. And remember, the key is believing that change is possible. If you enter this process with a mental eye-roll of “here we go again,” it is unlikely you will successfully change the habit. Be kind to yourself. There is nothing wrong with you. Habits are just an efficient tool for your brain to have one less choice to make in a day full of them. They do not make you a good or bad person—just a human being, like the rest of us.

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