What Habits Are Made Of

Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.

Charles Duhigg: “The Power of Habit”

Establishing a successful routine requires you to change your habits. Habits, both good and bad, are made up of three parts: the cue, the reward and the routine. Knowing this and learning to use it to your advantage becomes a powerful tool for change. It’s easy to beat yourself up for your bad habits but the reality is that habits are simply mental patterns that have been built up over time. You don’t need to add guilt to the mix and frankly, the guilt often just makes change more difficult by adding emotional charge to the situation. Let go of the emotion are focus instead on the parts. Let’s walk through them:

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The Cue

The cue is the thing that prompts you to do the habit. For unconscious habits you want to change, it’s important to pay close attention to what is happening when you find yourself doing the thing you want to stop doing. For example, I have a bad habit of picking at the back of my head. If I pay attention to what’s going on when I find myself reaching back to pull my hair, I find that I’m often bored or stressed and so the hair picking has become a coping mechanism.

You can hack the cue to create a positive habit you want to cultivate. Want to go running in the early morning before work? Create a cue for yourself by putting your running shoes in the doorway of your bathroom. When you wake up in the morning and go stumbling toward the bathroom for your automatic morning “routine,” you’ll trip over your shoes and that will be your cue to remind your tired, groggy self that your best self wants you to go running.

The Reward

Habits become habits because, on some level, they are rewarding to our brains. Something about the habit feels good to you in some way and your brain is naturally keyed to seek out some reward. With habits that we want to change (aka bad habits), the reward can be difficult to easily recognize. We turn to the habit because some need isn’t being met and it seems easier to simply eat the snack or chew the fingernails than to deal with the actual problem. The satisfaction of the “bad” habit makes us feel better in the moment, even if we don’t deal with the boredom or anxiety or whatever is really going on underneath.

For cultivating positive habits, it helps to intentionally choose a reward that outweighs the natural “pain” that is going to be caused by you pushing your limits. There’s a reason you don’t naturally wake up, throw on your running shoes and head out to the pavement: your bed is nice and warm, why would you want to leave it to go out and run? You’ve got to have a reward in mind that will push you past the pain. What that reward is will be different for everyone. Here’s a list of 50 non-food reward ideas. I have monthly goals that I track daily in my journal. At the start of the month, I write down my reward on the tracking sheet so that I see it every time I check off a day. Every check mark gets me one step closer to my reward. This month, my reward for cleaning up my diet and avoiding snacks at work is a digital sticker book for my journal! I want those stickers!!

The Routine

The routine is the “doing” part of the habit. The cue and the reward are how you prompt your brain to be motivated to do the routine you set out for yourself. It helps immensely to write down a plan ahead of time. A simple phrase, structured like this helps: When <cue>, I will <routine> because it provides me with <reward>. For our morning run example, the phrase would be something like this: “When I wake up, I will put on my running gear and head out because it will provide me with a sticker book when I reach my goal.” Keeping your mind focused on a positive reward will help you overcome the challenges of changing a habit. Our unconscious habits settle in for a reason, they are easy and rewarding. Changing requires us to do something that isn’t as easy with delayed rewards. Keeping that phrase going in your mind like a mantra helps get through the tough times.


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