As you may know, I am obsessed with habits. And for good reason.
The right habits can help you a live happier and healthier life.
But habits are sneaky. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s “good” and “bad” for you. Only you can decide that.
I recently finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a great book with valuable insights on how to change your behaviour. Highly recommended.
One important concept I learned was habit loops.
Researchers have found that each habit consists of a loop: a cue, a routine, and a reward. By identifying the loop, you can change your behaviour for the better.
Want to see how it works? Read on.
4 steps to change your habits
Charles Duhigg gives us a simple framework to change our habits. Here are his four steps:
- Identify the routine.
- Experiment with rewards.
- Isolate the cue.
- Have a plan.
Let me show you how I changed my smartphone habit.
Step 1: Identify the routine
I had formed a bad habit of checking my smartphone too much. It was an unhealthy relationship. How could I change this behaviour?
According to the book, I needed to figure out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine.
As with most habits, the routine is the most ovbious aspect: it’s the behaviour you want to change. In my case, it was checking my smartphone too much, especially Facebook and Instagram.
What was the cue for this routine? Was it boredom? Fear of missing out? The temporary distraction?
To figure this out, I needed to do a little experimentation.
Step 2: Experiment with rewards
On the first day of my experiment, I adjusted my routine to deliver a different reward.
Instead of checking my phone, I picked up a book (yes, it was The Power of Habit). The next day, I checked my phone but instead of going to Facebook and Instagram, I listened to a funny podcast.
You get the idea. What you choose to do instead of checking your phone isn’t important. The point is to test different hypotheses to learn which craving is driving your routine.
As you test for diffferent rewards, you start looking for patterns. After each activity, you jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind.
By writing them down, you become more aware of what you’re thinking or feeling at the time. As we’ll see soon, this makes it easier to understand your behaviour.
Once you’ve figured out the routine and the reward, what remains is identifying the cue.
Step 3: Isolate the cue
Almost all habitual cues fit into one of the following categories:
- Emotional state.
- Other people.
- Immediately preceding action.
To figure out the cue for “checking your smartphone” habit, you observe your habitual cues. Last time I did this experiment, I wrote:
Where are you? (on the tube)
What time is it? (it’s 17:36)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (fellow commuters)
What action preceded the urge? (got a seat on the tube)
After a few days, it became clear I checked my smartphone when I was in a certain emotional state. This insight was revealing to me. I was actually using my smartphone to combat things like restlessness and boredom.
And the habit kicked in during my commute. I knew I could change this behaviour for the better. I could make a plan.
Step 4: Have a plan
Duhigg says you must have a plan. He writes:
Once you’ve figured out your habit loop — you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself— you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.
Put in another way, a habit is a formula that our brain automatically follows:
When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE to GET A REWARD.
To re-engineer that formula, we need to begin making choices again. What we need is a plan, or what psychologists call “implementation intentions”.
Take, for instance, my smartphone habit. By using Duhigg’s framework, I learned that my cue was roughly 17:30 in the late afternoon. And I learned that it wasn’t the smartphone I craved, rather it was a moment of distraction. So, I wrote a plan:
At 17:30, every day, I will open a book and read for 25 minutes.
To make sure I remembered to do this, I placed the book in the outside pocket of my bag, so it was easy to get to.
It didn’t work immediately. There were some days when I ignored the book and picked up my smartphone instead.
But on those days that I abided the plan, I found that I ended the workday feeling better. I hadn’t browsed endless Instagram feeds; instead, I had learned something new.
I felt a true sense of accomplishment. I had changed the relationship to my smartphone.
Which habits will you change?
After reading this post, you can look at your own habit loops. What triggers your behaviour? What rewards do you crave? Start experimenting, and change your habits!
Have you managed to change any bad habits? Let us know in the comments!
More free resources on habits
I’ve written a lot about habits. To learn more, check out these free resources: