Habits are small, often subconscious, decisions that we make every day. Regardless of how minute the habit, they can be incredibly difficult to change. Even with the desire and willingness to change a less than optimal behavior, why are we typically only successful for a short time before reverting to our old patterns?
With a strong desire to help my clients create lasting change in their lives, and a curiosity about the science behind habit change, I recently read James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. In his work, Clear describes habits as mental shortcuts that we develop over time as our brain learns what works through trial and error. What this inherently means is that our brains can get stuck in a “habit loop” developed by the choices we have made repeatedly over time. This also means that we can create new loops with awareness, intention, and support. It is possible to disrupt the patterns that you have fallen into and create the lifestyle that you have always longed to have.
But first, let’s look at what comprises a habit loop so that we can know how to change our loops! In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains a habit loop as a psychological pattern composed of three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Building upon Duhigg, James Clear adds an additional and powerful step in the pattern which he terms as craving.
The Cue: This is the first component of the habit loop. The cue or “trigger” is what signals your brain to go into automatic mode and subsequently allows behaviors to unfold.
The Craving: The motivational force behind every habit. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. A simple example of this is that you are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the sensation of having a clean mouth that follows.
The Routine: The routine is the behavior that unfolds following the cue. This is what you typically think of when you imagine a habit taking form as an action or thought.
The Reward: This final component is what encourages the brain to remember the behavior in the future. It is the glue holding the habit loop together.
Putting It All Together:
To understand these components in action, consider the habit of checking your cell phone each morning to see if you’ve received emails, text messages, or likes on your most recent Instagram post. In this example, the cue would be waking up in the morning followed by the craving of social connectedness, leading to the routine of checking your phone, leading to the reward which would be the surge of dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) you receive when you see that your friend has invited you to a party or that 10 people have liked the picture that you posted. It’s a powerful feedback loop.
So all this is great to intellectualize, but what does one do to disrupt this cycle when wanting to break a bad habit and make a lasting positive lifestyle change? What needs to happen is a reprogramming of the brain to break the habit loop and that is typically a five-step process.
Creating New Habit Loops
Step One: Awareness
The best way to start rewiring your brain is to begin by analyzing the structure of your bad habit. Begin by noticing the trigger or cue that preceded the behavior you wish to change. Given these habits often happen automatically, this can be challenging. Next time you notice your habit, work backward to understand the cue and then try to focus on what is rewarding about your actions. Think beyond the obvious. Maybe it satisfies an emotional need. Perhaps the reward is feeling more in control or safe. Or the habit is social by nature and about “fitting in”.
Step Two: Willingness to Commit to Change
Despite wanting to change badly and even knowing that it will be better for you, changing a habit that isn’t serving you well can be significantly difficult. Sustainable change requires taking responsibility for your actions and committing to altering your behavior. Without a commitment to dig in and do the work despite the discomfort, attempts at change often falter. It helps to write down your “whys” for change and to be descriptive, noting the benefits of changing and what will happen if you don’t change.
Step Three: Alter the Environment/Reframe your Mindset
The simplest way to break a bad habit is to eliminate the cue that precedes it but this isn’t always possible. For most habits, the trigger can’t be fully eliminated. In the example with the cell phone, the cue was waking up in the morning and the routine was checking your cell phone. While you can’t eliminate waking up, you can alter the environment ever so slightly by moving your cell phone farther away from the bed. This would make it harder to perform the habit and would give you more time to be mindful of your actions. Additionally, you can use this time to reframe your mindset by focusing on the benefits of avoiding the behavior you wish to change and replacing it with a new habit.
Step Four: Replace the Habit
Many believe they should just be strong enough to simply stop a bad habit. Unfortunately, our innate drive to feel good or comfortable often overrides willpower when we are exposed to the trigger of the behavior that we wish to change. Habits are powerful because they are tied to feeling good or removing uncomfortable emotions like boredom, loneliness, or anxiety. It can help to replace the habit with new behavior that brings a similar reward. To continue with the cell phone scrolling example, that behavior could be replaced by making a cup of tea or starting the day with a stretching routine that also makes you feel good but keeps you present and reduces your screen time.
Step Five: Seek Support/Partnership
When striving to make improvements in our lives, it is helpful and important to feel supported. Change is hard and takes time. Often the difference between success and failure is having a support system that shares your values and beliefs, can encourage you, and hold you accountable when the going gets tough. Sharing your journey with others normalizes it and helps you feel less alone in the challenge, especially when others have had similar experiences and can offer advice and hope.
Working with a coach can also be invaluable during a period of life change. What if you had a partner to come along on the journey who dedicated themselves to listening to you, providing support, education, resources, and cheerleading to help you reach your goals? This person would be there to aid you in clearing the roadblocks that inevitably pop up along the way. This is what health and wellness coaches do. If you are looking to shake things up and want a partner to help establish sustainable lifestyle change, a health and wellness coach could be the missing link to making the changes stick. Whatever your vision for wellness includes, a coach trained in positive psychology and habit change can help you actualize it. Click here to schedule your complimentary consultation with a Get Centered coach today!