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How To Change Your Habits and Make Them Stick


Introduction

How many times have you tried to change your habits, only to find yourself slipping back into your old ways in a couple days? It’s no secret that forming new habits can be really difficult, especially if you already have a routine set in place. Luckily, understanding what makes them so difficult can help you overcome the challenges and reach your goals.  

This article will focus on Habit Loops, what they are, and how to hack them to create new habits and redeem unhealthy ones. Read on to learn the scientifically proven ways to get rid of bad habits and create new ones. 

Understanding the habit loop

Nothing comes from nothing, and the same goes for habits. Every habit you have, even ones that feel out of your control, are all habits you’ve trained yourself to do. This is because of what is known as The Habit Loop. Introduced by author Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, The Habit Loop is the concept that all habits can be broken down into three separate components: Cue, Routine, and Reward. 

Cues are anything that might trigger a specific habit. Although many things can be considered cues, the primary five are location, time, emotional state, other people, and preceding actions. For example, imagine getting an ice-cream sundae every time you hear an ice-cream truck passing by. In this scenario, the habit of getting ice-cream is cued by the sound of the ice-cream truck. Another example would be buying a new pair of shoes whenever you feel really insecure. For that case, the habit of buying shoes is cued by the emotional state of feeling insecure.  Routines are the part that we would consider “habits.” They are the actions that result due to the cues.

Routines can be either beneficial, harmful, or neutral. Not every habit will change your life drastically, but little things do add up. Consider the multitude of routines that make up your day. What would you classify them as? With practice, you can learn to change your harmful habits and reinforce your beneficial ones. 

Rewards are the reason why our brains decide that routines are worth keeping. The rewards provide our brains with positive reinforcement, which leads us to continue certain habits over and over. Like cues, rewards can also vary from tangible objects, like candy or a new dress, to something intangible, like an extra hour of sleeping in or getting to watch another episode on Netflix. 

How habits are formed

As you’ve learned above, habits are created through The Habit Loop. Once our brains begin linking cues, routines, and rewards, we end up developing a neurological connection that connects them together. This is why it can be so challenging to change our habits, no matter if they’re good or bad.  However, understanding how and why we do certain things is the first crucial step to changing them. Take some time to analyze your daily habits, and see if you can identify the cues, routines, and rewards that make up each one. 

Changing harmful and unhealthy habits

First of all, ensure that you have a solid reason to change your behaviour. If you cannot convince yourself that your current habits are genuinely unhealthy, then you will find yourself struggling to tackle your Habit Loop. Rather than quitting drinking because you know it’s terrible for you, rooting your habit change to something deeply personal, such as being able to remember the fun times you spent with your friends rather than becoming blackout drunk, will give you a deeper motivation to change. 

Now that you’ve gotten a strong reason to change, and you’ve outlined the causes behind your habits, you are ready to tackle them. The key to changing habits is to address the cue and the reward.  

Cues are compelling, and they can influence us without being acutely aware. Imagine you have the habit of buying a coffee during lunch at work. You try to stop yourself by writing reminders on your planner saying “NO COFFEE,” but every time lunch rolls around, you find yourself, coffee in hand, laughing and chatting with your colleagues. Or maybe you manage to hold off for a couple days until one day you’re feeling exhausted and find yourself gulping down an Americano. Why did you fail? Once you understand Habit Loops, the answer is obvious. You failed because you tried to tackle the routine without address the cue that leads to it. 

However, addressing the cue might be trickier than expected. In the above scenario, there could be many different causes. Is it your steadfast love for coffee? Your need for a break before you begin the second half of your day? The pleasant feeling of talking with your colleagues? Do you have low blood sugar? Are you addicted to the rush of caffeine? Take time to assess exactly what is triggering your habit by taking part in some experimentation. To accurately identify what the exact cue is, you must focus on the reward. 


For the next couple of days, experiment with different rewards. Rewards are what solidify habits into our brains. The way they do this is by satisfying our inner cravings. During this experiment, don’t let yourself become stressed. Remember, this is just to figure out what is driving your habit, and making yourself feel guilty or worried about your habit will not help you on your journey. When you feel the urge to drink a cup of coffee around lunch time, switch up your routine and do something else. Go for a walk, drink tea, or chat with some colleagues at their desks. See if you can achieve the same level of satisfaction without the coffee. Take casual notes about how you feel during these experiments, and keep track of whether or not they help with your craving for coffee. Why is it essential to replace the reward? Unhealthy habits cannot be eliminated, only replaced. By ensuring your desires are satisfied, you’re keeping yourself from falling back on the unhealthy habit you had before. 

Now that you’ve figured out your reward, it’s time to get back to the cue. Remember those 5 basic cues from earlier? It’s time to bring them back. With your new reward in place, take notes of exactly what is going on when the urge hits you to drink coffee. An example of this would be: 


Day One
Location: Copying room
Time: 12:30pm
Emotional State: Bored
Other people: Jim from Accounting
Preceding action: Washing hands 

Do this for a couple days, then compare. What are the similarities? Suppose that you always crave coffee when Jim from Accounting is around because he is the person you go to the coffee shop with and you really enjoy his company. Now that you’ve figured out your Habit Loop, including the cue (your friend Jim) and the reward (socialization with a friend), you can tackle the issue head-on. 

Create a plan in advance. Commit yourself so that the next time you run into Jim, you arrange to meet up with him after he’s purchased his mid-day coffee so you can talk. That way, you can satisfy your urge for socialization without having to buy a coffee in the process. Changing your daily routine to make it difficult for yourself to fall back into the same patterns, as usual, will help you stick with it. In this scenario, maybe you could start bringing lunch to work and eating it on the patio right after you talk to Jim.  

Reaching your goals: The art of creating new habits

If you are looking to build new habits, The Habit Loop is still a helpful thing to keep in mind. Remember, all habits form the same way, so giving your routines clear cues and rewards can help the habit stick. 

When creating a habit from scratch, the cue is the most important aspect to tackle. Make the cue something you know you will have trouble ignoring, that is very specific and actionable. Do not pick something vague, like “In the morning, I’ll do yoga.” Although there is a time in mind, it is still too broad. When exactly, will you do it? How will it fit into your morning routine? Instead, select something more specific, such as “At 9:30, I will do yoga”, or “Right after I brush my teeth, I’ll do yoga.” By making it more specific, you ensure that your mind will have an easier time associating the cue with the routine that is to follow. 

Here are the definitions of each style of cue, and ways you can implement them into your life.  

  1. Location: Pick an area that you already pass on a daily basis, and that you cannot avoid. Beyond this, pick the same place to do certain activities. Perhaps you warm up in the same corner at the gym. Soon, just going to that corner will make your body feel like moving.
  2. Time: Pick a time that is already relatively calm for you. Ensure you will remember by putting an alarm (or multiple) onto your phone as a reminder. Time-based cues can help you form regular daily habits.
  3. Emotion: This is a tricky one for most people. Although our emotional states are very obvious cues for our habits (who doesn’t like eating something decadent when they’re sad, or mindlessly watching TV when they’re bored), it can be challenging to control them. To use your emotional state as a cue, you must be aware of what you’re feeling. Practicing mindfulness can help.
  4. Other people: Use the actions of others to help you make better decisions. For example, if you find yourself getting blackout drunk with the same group of people, pick a group of non-drinkers to hang out with at the next party.
  5. Preceding action: Many habits are cued by something else happening in your life. For example, you pick up your phone in the morning, and the next thing you know, you’re scrolling away at your Instagram feed instead of getting ready. By connecting your new habit to routines you already do, it will become much more comfortable to continue doing them. For this reason, we believe preceding actions are the most important and most efficient cues of the bunch.

You will see that rewards have not been discussed yet in this section. That is because most good habits have intrinsic rewards built in. Eating healthy might not always be the most pleasant, but your glowing skin and extra energy will pay off for it. Hitting the gym at 6:30am might sound like torture, but you might find yourself feeling excited for your daily workout and happy with your new muscles. Of course, not every habit will have a distinct reward. In that case, it is good to keep in mind exactly why you wanted to form this habit in the first place. As with changing habits, having a profound, personal reason behind your actions will help you to remain consistent with your new habit. 

Once you’ve picked your cue and refined the reason behind your new habit, it all comes down to consistency. Scientific studies have shown it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to really stick, so you must put your all into it. Sometimes it can even take longer. By no means should this stress you out. In fact, having lower levels of stress can actually make the entire process much smoother. Do not forget to take care of yourself during your journey to create a new habit. Ensuring that you get plenty of sleep, at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, and taking care of your mental health, will surely help you along.  


Conclusion

Forming and changing habits is never easy and can involve many different attempts and failures. However, by understanding the Habit Loop and how it influences your brain, you can get a hold of your habits. Taking control of your cues, responses, and rewards will give you more power than you might have thought possible. With dedication and perseverance, anything is possible.

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