In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg describes a habit as “a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.” He calls this the habit loop – CUE, ROUTINE, REWARD. (See last month’s post “How’s the Water?” for more background information on the topic of habits.)
Duhigg’s nail biting example matched one of my bad habits exactly. I stopped biting my nails in high school but somehow the habit snuck back into my life in the last few years. By recognizing that nail biting is a “craving for stimulation” (REWARD) which I usually do when bored (CUE), I was able to replace the ROUTINE of nail biting with something that will “provide a quick physical stimulation” – such as rubbing my arm or rapping my knuckles on a table – anything that would produce a physical response (REWARD).
Once you know what habit you want to change, you need to find your CUE so that you can change the habit loop because “Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually … a habit is born.” When I felt bored I automatically bit my nails – the two became connected in my brain.
So to change a habit, “you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” Duhigg uses the example of eating a cookie at work every afternoon. In this example, you need to determine if you crave the cookie itself, a break from work, a burst of energy, or an excuse to socialize in the cafeteria. He suggests testing to see which craving is driving your routine. Try replacing the cookie with an apple, a cup of coffee, a walk outside, or a visit with a colleague. After each test, set an alarm for fifteen minutes and then ask yourself if you still feel the urge for that cookie. If fifteen minutes after chatting with a friend you find it easy to get back to work, then you’ve identified the REWARD that your habit sought to satisfy – temporary distraction and socialization. “By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.”
You also need to figure out the CUE. In order to do that, Duhigg suggests you write down the following five things that are happening when the urge or craving hits:
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- What is your emotional state i.e. bored, happy, tired, excited, etc.?
- Who else is around?
- What action immediately preceded the urge?
In the cookie example, if you realize that the urge for the cookie hits at approximately the same time every day, you know that time of day is your CUE i.e. every day at approximately 3pm you get the urge for a cookie. “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. What you need is a plan.”
With the cookie example, you know that you crave a cookie at approximately 3pm every day and through testing you have realized that your reward is temporary distraction and socialization. So every day at approximately 3pm (your CUE) you can go for a walk and chat with a colleague or go to the cafeteria and have a tea with colleagues (new ROUTINE) to satisfy your REWARD of temporary distraction and socialization.
I didn’t have to test for my cue or my reward. The nail biting example in the book was a perfect match for me. I directly followed the example in the book and so far it has worked. When I feel the urge to bite my nails I replace the action with some other type of physical response until the urge goes away. Eventually I hope my new routine becomes a healthier habit.
Lisa Ivaldi is a Writer and Virtual Assistant in Guelph, ON. Click here to download a free copy of her Wake Up to What You Love workbook.