Here’s a fact that might surprise you… while you may think that most of your actions of the course of the day are products of well thought-out decision making, the reality is that the vast majority of things we do every day are actually habits, where our minds are more or less on “autopilot”! Think about it…
When you wake up in the morning, do you get out on the left or right side of the bed?
What hand do you use to open doors?
How do you remember which tasks need to get done over the day?
What do you tend to eat when you’re stressed?
All of these behaviors (and more) are habits, and they’re firmly imprinted in our brains. In fact, scientists discovered in the late 1990’s that habitual behavior resides in the deeper, older, and more primitive area of the brain called the “basal ganglia,” closer to the spinal column, where our automatic behaviors are controlled, such as breathing, swallowing, and blinking our eyes!
Do you have any habits that you’ve tried like crazy to break, but can’t seem to do it? It turns out that one of the most important keys to finally overcoming bad habits and forming new better habits is to truly understand EXACTLY what’s going on in your brain with any habit you may have. There’s a very distinct pattern, according to Charles Duhig, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”
In fact, it’s a three-step loop:
- First, there’s a cue, in other words a trigger to get your brain into auto-pilot …this could be a feeling, a sensation, or a memory.
- Second, there’s the routine, which can be a physical action or even a mental or emotional state.
- Third, there’s the reward, which helps your brain decide whether or not to imprint this behavior for future purposes.
The more we go through the cue, routine, and reward cycle, the more firmly we have it implanted in our minds, for better or for worse. The good news is we can use this to our advantage! The key to either breaking old habits or forming new ones is to pay attention to all three components of the cycle, not just the routine itself!
Let’s just say for example’s sake you’ve got a habit of reaching for sweets late at night after dinner. Divide the action up into the three component parts of the habit loop an analyze them! Maybe the cue is finishing cleaning up the kitchen, the routine is to eat a piece or two of chocolate, and the reward is that the chocolate increases levels of serotonin, a calming hormone. So understanding the three steps of the cycle, what can you do? Find a routine that produces the same or similar reward as the chocolate bar (maybe a relaxing tea), and actively start to implement it when you’re done cleaning up the kitchen.
What if you want to start a new habit, or in other words a new “routine,” focus on the cue and the reward! Let’s say you want to start exercising every morning? You can create your own habit-forming loop and start to build into your daily life. First, choose a cue – maybe the cue is leaving your gym clothes out next to your bed. Your routine is the workout of course, so what about the reward? What about a tasty (but healthy) smoothie?
So here’s the takeaway and challenge for today. Choose an activity you’d like to turn into a habit, figure out a cue/routine/reward loop for it, and put it into action TODAY!