Imagine for a moment that you have a habit you really want to change.
Let’s say, for instance, you go up to the cafeteria every afternoon and a eat a chocolate chip cookie. This habit has caused you to gain a little bit of weight. In fact, this habit has caused you to gain exactly 8 pounds, and your wife has started make some pointed comments.
And when I say you, what I really mean is me- because this is a habit that I had, that I just couldn’t kick.
To understand why that habit was so powerful, and what it would take to change it, I had to learn how habits work.
Every habit functions the same way.
At first, there’s a CUE- some type of trigger that makes the behaviour unfold automatically. Studies tell us that a cue can be a location, a time of day, a certain emotional state, other people, or just a pattern of behaviours that consistently triggers a certain ROUTINE.
To figure out the cue for my craving, I spent a few days tracking exactly when the urge to eat a cookie hit. And what I noticed pretty soon was something interesting.
The cookie craving always hit between 3:00 and 3:30 in the afternoon. That was my cue: It was a certain time of day.
The next part in the habit loop is the ROUTINE – the behaviour itself. And for me, that was pretty easy to figure out.
Every day between 3:00 and 3:30, I’d get this craving for a cookie. I’d get up out of my chair, I’d walk over to the elevator, I’d take the elevator up to the 14th floor, I’d get out, I’d buy a cookie, and then I would eat it while talking to my colleagues in the cafeteria.
The last part of habit loop is the REWARD.
And in some respects, the reward is the most important part, because that’s why habits exist – so that we can get the rewards that we want.
But figuring out a reward is kind of tricky. To figure out what reward was driving my habit, I did a little it of an experiment.
One day when the cookie urge struck, instead of going up to the cafeteria, I went outside and I took a walk around the block.
Then the next day, I went up to the cafeteria – but instead of buying a cookie, I got a candy bar, and then ate it at my desk.
Ans then the day after that, I went up to the cafeteria again, but I didn’t buy anything. Instead, I just talked to friends for about 10 minutes.
You get the idea.
But what I was trying to do was test different hypotheses to figure out what reward I was actually craving. And what I figured out was pretty quickly was it had nothing to do with cookies. It had to do with socializing.
Nowadays what happens is, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, I absentmindedly stand up. I look around the office, I see a friend, I’ll walk over and we’ll gossip for 10 minutes, and then I’ll go back to my desk.
The urge to go get a cookie has completely disappeared. The new behaviour has become a habit. And I’ve lost about 12 pounds as a result.
Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.
So what are the cues, routines, and rewards in your life?
What habit do you want to change?