DEEP DIVE — The Habit Loop

GretchenDeep Dives & Epic Posts, Healthy Habits

The Power of Habit

When I set out on my healthier and happier habit journey, one of the first books I read cover to cover was Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit. The science behind something as mindless as habits fascinated me. I invite you now to read my old fashioned book report of part one –

“All our life, so far as it has definite forms, is but a mass of habits.” William James

The Habits of Individuals

Our daily routines are made up of multiple habits. Individually, these habits don’t matter much. But collectively and over time, our habits shape our lives. One cookie isn’t going to put you overweight, but a cookie every day eventually will. But how did that cookie-a-day habit emerge? And how can you break it? I’ve written about several strategies you can employ to help change a habit, but let’s start at square one and understand the science behind habits.

What is a habit?

A habit is a 3-step process in your brain. The first step is the trigger, or CUE, that puts your brain into automatic pilot mode. This cue prompts a sequence of actions chunked together to create a ROUTINE, the second step in the loop. This routine can be a simple set of actions like putting on your shoes to very complex like backing your car out of the garage. The final step in the habit loop is the REWARD that helps your brain determine if this particular habit loop is worth remembering.

Why do habits emerge?

Habits emerge because our brains are constantly looking for ways to conserve effort. Studies show that about 40% of what we do on a daily basis is done out of habit and without even thinking. Adults take tying our shoes for granted but sometime watch a 3-year old that is still learning this routine. Imagine if you had to use that much concentration for every routine task you did each day from brushing your teeth to driving yourself to work.

In the early 1990s, MIT researchers studied rats. Using sophisticated micro-technology to monitor the rats’ brain activity, they placed each rat behind a partition in a T-shaped maze with a piece of chocolate hidden around one corner. Before the partition would raise, a loud click would sound. The first few times the click sounded and the partition raised, the scientists observed significant brain activity as the rats scratched and sniffed their way to the chocolate. As the experiment was repeated, the rats learned the routine. They no longer scratched and sniffed their way to the chocolate, they just ran directly to it. When the rats heard the click, their cue, the activity in the decision-making centers of their brains spiked and then quieted as the partition raised and they ran the maze. After a few days of running the maze, even the brain structures related to memory went quiet. Brain activity spiked once again when the rats reached the chocolate, their reward.

How are habits created?

First, you have to define a CUE. Cues can be almost anything – a visual trigger, a time of day, a certain place, a sequence of thoughts or events, or the company you are with. You can place your workout gear on the floor next to the bed to trigger working out first thing in the morning. Or, you can pair stopping at the gym with driving home after work. You can set an alarm to trigger your bedtime routine.

Then you have to create a ROUTINE. What are the steps you will execute when you receive the cue? Routines can be simple like the steps involved with getting dressed in the morning or very complex, like cooking dinner. Regardless of complexity, the steps must be executed in the same order and in the same way over and over until the routine is memorized. For a while, it will take intense concentration in order to learn the steps of the new routine and crowd out any competing old habits.

The next step is the sweetest part of the habit loop – the REWARD. The reward helps your brain determine if this particular habit loop is worth repeating. Rewards can be external like a smoothie after a workout or intrinsic like the satisfaction you get making your bed and knowing how nice it will feel to slip under the covers later that night.

But reward alone is not quite enough to solidify the habit loop. Our brains need to crave that reward. You can create a CRAVING by thinking about the reward off and on all day. In the evening, think about the after workout smoothie. Think about the flavor, the smell, the sweetness. Take a picture of the smoothie and put it on your bathroom mirror so you start thinking about it as soon as you wake up. When your workout cue triggers your smoothie craving, you’re more likely to complete the loop and finish the workout.

How are bad habits broken?

Often times, the best way to break a bad habit is to crowd it out with good habits. If you want to break a TV-watching habit, create a workout habit or develop a new hobby habit. But sometimes the bad habit is so ingrained we must focus on breaking it. There are thousands of ways to break a habit and what works for one habit won’t work for another. Sadly, there is no silver bullet. But, understanding the habit loop can help.

First, we have to know our ROUTINE. I’ll use Charles Duhigg’s example; Duhigg had a cookie habit. His wife pointed out that he’d put on some weight and he was pretty sure his cookie habit was the root cause. Every afternoon, he executed the same routine – he got up from his desk, walked to the cafeteria, purchased a cookie, and ate it while chatting with work colleagues. This was the routine of his habit loop.

Next, he experimented with new REWARDs. Rewards satisfy our cravings but we’re often not aware of the cravings that drive our behaviors. For a few days, when Duhigg felt the urge to walk to the cafeteria, he did something else instead – took a walk outside, chatted with a colleague at their desk, went to the cafeteria but bought an apple, bought a doughnut or candy bar and ate it at his desk. What he chose to do was irrelevant. He was simply testing different hypotheses to determine the craving driving his behavior. Essentially he was shifting his routine to deliver different rewards – a walk provided movement, gossiping provided human interaction and distraction, the apple satisfied hunger, and the doughnut was just as sweet as the cookie. When he returned to his desk he wrote down in a journal the first three things that came to his mind whether those were emotions, random thoughts, or reflections of how he was feeling. This was simply to create awareness and memory of how changing the routine made him feel. To determine if the new reward satisfied his craving, he set a timer for 15 minutes. When time was up he asked if he still wanted the cookie. If he bought a doughnut and still had the urge to head to the cafeteria then he knew it wasn’t sweets he was craving. It was more likely a need for human interaction. If after chatting with a coworker he still wanted the cookie, then he knew it was hunger or a craving for something sweet driving his behavior. In Duhigg’s case, he was able to get back to work 15 minutes after chatting with a coworker. He isolated his craving down to a need for distraction and human interaction.

Next, he isolated the CUE. When the cookie urge hit he wrote down his location, the time of day, his emotional state, what other people were around (or not), and what he had been doing just before the urge hit. After a few days, he isolated his cue down to the time of day. He discovered that every day between 3 and 4 pm he craved a temporary distraction.

The final step in the process is to develop an implementation intention – HAVE A PLAN. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.

When I hear/see/feel CUE
I will do ROUTINE because
it provides me with REWARD

Duhigg’s plan:

“At 3:30 every day I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”

He set an alarm on his watch to cue 3:30. If he couldn’t find a friend at their desk, he would walk to the cafeteria but purchase a cup of tea to drink while chatting with colleagues. This new routine satisfied his need for a temporary distraction. After a few minutes, he would return to his office and “finish his workday, feeling a small, but real, sense of accomplishment.” He doesn’t mention if he lost the cookie weight, but surely he did with his new cookie-less habit.

And so…

Habits are ingrained and sometimes feel impossible to break. It doesn’t seem fair to simplify them in 1600 words or less. But understanding the habit loop can help you break old habits and establish new, healthier and happier habits.

To create a new habit, establish a new loop:

  • Define the CUE – what will trigger your new habit?
  • Establish the ROUTINE – what actions will define the habit?
  • Provide a REWARD – how will your brain remember this is a habit worth repeating?
  • Create a CRAVING – how will you make your brain anticipate the reward?

To change an old habit, analyze your current habit loop:

  • Identify the ROUTINE – what is the sequence of actions that make up the habit?
  • Experiment with different REWARDs – what is your brain really craving?
  • Isolate the CUE – who, what, when, where triggers the habit?
  • HAVE A PLAN – use reminders to help you choose the new routine until it becomes second nature.

Now that you know the science, what habit will you break or create? What are your cues, routines, rewards, and cravings?

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Recommended reading: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg.

And download these help flowcharts from Duhigg’s website: How to Create a Habit and How to Break a Habit