This serves as a follow up to our previous post about Habit Formation.
The Habit Loop
At the root of all habits lies the three-step loop. This is the program that is hard-wired in our brains. To start tweaking the cogs and screws of our behaviours, we’ll have to break a habit down into its components: Cue, Routine, Reward.
A Cue is like a button that activates an action (the Routine) which leads to a Reward.
The following are all cues:
1. Visibility: See cake, eat cake.
2. Time: It’s 8pm, cake time!
3. Emotions: I’m sad, I want cake.
4. People: Bobo always orders cake, I shall order cake too.
5. Thought processes: Urgh life is terrible, I want cake.
6. Setting: I’m at a birthday party, music is good, people are all eating cake. I’ll eat cake.
Routines and Rewards can be simple or complex, whether physical, mental, or emotional – anything that helps your brain decide whether this habit loop is worth remembering and repeating.
Companies know this well, and the marketing industry exploits this all the time. Did you know shampoo doesn’t need to foam, toothpaste doesn’t need to have that minty tingle, and effervescent tablets don’t need to fizz? They’re all part of the Reward portion of the loop, getting you craving for that foam, the tingle, the fizz so that you’ll go through the Routine of buying and using a product.
Habit loops are internal feedback loops that your brain encodes deeper the more frequently they’re used. Think of your cerebral cortex as your command center. When a Cue is observed, the autopilot system is activated. The rest of the command center continues smoothly, directing precious mental resources to more important situations.
Let’s look at a couple of common examples:
1. Emotional eating
Cue: The Emotion (Anger, Sadness, Frustration, even Happiness)
Routine: You head to the fridge for a snack, usually something naughty
Reward: Endorphin rush
2. Phone Notifications
Cue: Phone lights up with notification
Routine: Pick up phone to have a look
Reward: Satisfied curiosity
These loops are essential to our lives. Imagine the clothes in your room rearranging themselves daily: pants are hidden among shirts, shorts are with the underwears that are not in the closet anymore, shoes are in the kitchen under the sink. People with a damaged basal ganglia go through this experience daily. They cannot keep habits, and cannot function in society. Appreciate your brain, it is amazing.
Understanding Old Habits
Old habits never really disappear. In the same way that you cannot unlearn how to walk or speak a language, old habits rarely (if ever) die hard. You may be rusty because of a lack of practice, but you haven’t forgotten it.
Bad habits usually relapse under stress, or low willpower situations. When you’re emotionally, physically, or mentally exhausted, your cerebral cortex command center shuts down, leaving only the autopilot system running. If you find your spoon scraping the bottom of an ice cream tub with no recollection of how you found yourself sitting in the kitchen staring into space, you can be sure your basal ganglia led you there. Even the most disciplined person cracks under low willpower occasionally. If someone says they don’t, they’re lying. You have my permission to call them out on their bullshit.
Instead of feeling frustrated, think of these habits as a foundation for improvement. In computing speak, you cannot delete the source code, but you can overwrite or edit it. Change is possible.
Before we move on to the golden rule of habit change, let’s remove the mental barrier of “This is just who I am”. No, this is not who you are. You are not someone who is impatient, or pessimistic, or unfit, or who bites their nails. If you have allowed certain habits to build over time to where you are now, you can surely build your way out of it. Great civilisations have been built over by greater civilisations, mountains form over layers and layers of rock. While those take thousands – if not millions – of years, who you are changes every second. Even your cells are not the same by the time you finish reading this sentence.
To change a habit, you’ll need to find a more favourable Routine that produces the same Reward. This doesn’t require an overhaul, but it does require awareness.
Say you have a nice cold beer at the end of a long day. You may think that kicking back with a cold beer hits the spot.
What you don’t realize is that you want relaxation, or relief from tension, or because it dulls your frantic mind. Be honest with yourself as to why bad habits keep repeating.
Rewards usually cater to our emotional needs. They may masquerade as logical actions, but are not. “I’ve had a tiring day, therefore I deserve this beer.” Nope, you do not. You deserve to get a good night’s sleep, that’s what. Your subconscious is trying to address the stress and exhaustion, and the only way it’s been taught to do so is by steering you in the direction of a cold beer. It’s time you taught it to stop.
Let’s take a closer look at this,
Routine: Go get a cold beer
Reward: Relief from stress
Now let’s change the Routine –
Routine: Call a friend for a chat/ Hit the gym to smash it out/ Reach for a glass of cold water
Reward: Relief from stress
The Routine is the Autopilot. If the Autopilot system keeps leading you in the wrong direction, you’ll have to address it directly, reconfigure the wires.
Start by being aware of the three-step loop in a habit. Tackle one habit at a time. Take notes with a pen and notebook or with your phone. Track your habit when you feel it starting, or when it has been executed. Reflect on the Emotion you felt, the Time of day, and any Thoughts you had. Don’t try to stop the habit at this point, the aim is to let it run for a few days to a week to create data for yourself to analyze. Inevitably, a pattern will emerge.
Create Your Ritual
Since I’m on this topic, here’s a little tidbit for our members who may already have a feeling of why it’s so easy to keep coming back – the gym is a habit loop. We understand the science and importance of habits, especially when fitness and health goals are concerned.
We’re named Ritual after all.
Your cue is walking through the door. Everything else is the Routine. Getting your clothes, putting your things in the locker (I know it’s the same locker in the same corner every time, the one I have to save you from when it starts beeping), and training. A lot of you have a shake as your Reward too, if the endorphins aren’t enough.
If willpower is an issue (it shouldn’t be), we’ve lowered all the mental barriers to exercise: clothes and towels are provided, and there’s no need for shoes. Come as you are. Sessions are every half hour.
So I’d like to encourage you to be more aware of the habits in your life, outside of the gym. We provide the Routine, you choose the Cue and Reward. Take control of your loops. What causes you to skip a workout? What gets you heading to the gym? What causes you to cave into cravings? What do you look forward to after a session?
If there’s a habit you’d like to change, track it for a week. Be aware. No one says it will be easy, but it will be worth it.
- Judah, G., Gardner, B., & Aunger, R. (n.d.). Forming a flossing habit: An exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. British Journal of Health Psychology, 338-353.
- Neal, D., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (n.d.). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 959-975.
- Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (n.d.). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review,1-22.
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.