Habits do not mean much in isolation. More than 40% of our daily activities are habits, not choices. Over time, all of our habits have an enormous impact on our lives.
As told by Charles Duhigg in his New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit. When Eric was a teenager, he started smoking. He tried using willpower to quit, reading self-help books, posting affirmations, chewing gum and numerous other strategies for quitting—all to no avail.
As a personal trainer, he was always encouraging others to develop better habits in their own lives. Then he found a new idea, the habit loop.
The habit loop has three components: the cue, the habit and the reward. Smoking created a calming effect for Eric; that was his cue. Anytime he wanted to calm down, he smoked. Of course, his habit was smoking, and his reward was feeling relaxed after smoking.
In the habit loop, the cue and the reward can remain the same; the habit is what needs to change. It’s not enough just to take the habit away. It must be replaced with something else…in Eric’s case, something healthier.
So as Eric continued to experiment, he replaced smoking with running. This worked to calm him down, but couldn’t be done multiple times a day. Back to experimenting. When he tried going to the sauna, he encountered the same problem. It was relaxing, but it couldn’t be done over and over like smoking.
Then he listened to a meditation tape that he had at home and tried meditating for a minute or two. Sitting quietly for a few minutes felt like an accomplishment and calmed Eric down. The good thing about meditating is that, once you train your brain, you can do it almost anywhere. Eric found that anytime he craved a cigarette, he could close his eyes, take a minute to breathe and immediately feel calmer. Eric found success!
He replaced his smoking habit with meditation. It took some time, experimentation, failure and self-awareness for Eric to identify his cue, reward and eventually find a replacement habit.
This is normal. Failure is part of the process. Each valuable failure forced Eric to learn more and more about himself and, eventually, led to his success.
Learning From Eric
Almost any habit can be reshaped. It may not always be easy or fast, but it can be done with time and effort. Every person is different, just as every habit is different. This is a process that can be used by anyone willing to put in the time and effort to change.
1. Identify the habit.
Each habit has three components as part of the habit loop: the cue, the habit and the reward. First, identify the habit. This is the behavior that you want to change. Just like in Eric’s case, smoking was his habit.
2. What is your reward?
To identify your reward, think of yourself as a scientist investigating what cravings drive your behavior. In Eric’s case, he craved calmness and was rewarded with a sense of relaxation when he smoked.
Your craving is satisfied by your reward. Finding your reward may not be so obvious in the beginning. It could easily be hiding in plain sight. As you investigate and experiment with your craving and habit, you will be able to identify your reward.
Identifying a reward is an essential part of the process of reshaping a habit. As you experiment with your rewards, you will be able to find a replacement activity that satisfies your craving.
Eric experimented with different activities to find one that would deliver the same reward as smoking. He discovered it in a newfound sense of relaxation that came with meditation.
3. Find the Cue
What is prompting you to engage in the habit? What’s the cue for your habit? Are you bored? Hungry? Do you need something to calm down? What happens right before you start your habit?
Asking yourself questions will help identify your cue. Duhigg found in his research that almost all habit cues fall into one of these 5 categories:
For a week, maybe longer if necessary, ask yourself these questions when the urge hits you:
Where am I?
What time is it?
How do I feel?
Who else is around?
What happened right before the urge?
As you do this, you will see a pattern develop. Eric’s cue was a desire for calmness. You will be able to identify your cue or trigger as you work through this process.
4. Formulate a plan
Our brains have been programmed to follow a formula. When I see or feel the Cue, I engage in the Habit in order to get the Reward. In order to change the habit, you must have a plan.
Just like Eric, start out with a plan and experiment with different activities until you find the one that produces the same reward. Depending on the habit, this may take a significant amount of time.
Some habits are easier to change than others. The key is to continue experimenting, using each failure to learn more about yourself and your habit loop. Persistence will led to success!
“We become what we repeatedly do.” ― Sean Covey
Question: Do you have a habit that need to be reshaped? Have you been able to identify the habit loop? Did it help you replace a bad habit with a good one—or a good habit with a better one?