The Anatomy of a Habit (part 2)

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Let’s recap (part 1)… habits are part of our biology and are intended to benefit us by shifting a large portion of the workload of repetitive tasks from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind. There are 3 parts to a habit: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Finally, dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter) is used to make it all work.


Armed with the knowledge that we are hardwired for habits, how do can we use that to our advantage?


Using the Habit Loop to Break a Habit

It’s important to note that habits form neurological pathways that strengthen in the response to frequency and intensity. Even after you’ve successfully “broke” your habit, don’t be surprised if you still have cravings weeks or even years later… those pathways will still be there.


To use the habit loop to change a habit, we start by breaking it down into it’s components.


First, write down the routine you want to change and why you don’t like it. Be as specific as possible.  Stating that the routine is “gaining weight” is too general, and not so much a repeatable routine, as it is a result of several routines. However, “drinking a can of regular Coke each day” because the 40 grams of sugar is sabotaging your weight loss goal of losing 22 pounds, is more like it.


Now you have to figure out the cue. When do you crave it? Where do you crave it? Who are you with when you crave it? What do you do right before you start craving it? How do you feel when you crave it? The cue might not be obvious, so you have to be a bit of a detective. You discovered that when you settled in for the night to watch some TV after supper, you grabbed a Coke. On nights when you had something else going on, you rarely drank one.


Ok, so what’s the reward? Is it the caffeine hit, the sugar high, the taste, the carbonation, something cold, or some combination. You might have to experiment by trying tea, coffee, or Kool-Aid. It turns out that nothing really satisfies your craving unless it’s carbonated.


After a little work, you came up with… prep for TV = Coke = tingly bubbles. Your solution was to change to Zevia cola sweetened with stevia. Another option would have been changing up the TV routine, but that might be another habit! Who said this was easy?


Using the Habit Loop to Create a Habit

It’s not hard to see why some routines never become a habit while others do. In order for a habit to form, it needs all 3 components plus repetition.


Take running for example. Lots of us start running to lose weight or improve our health. Fueled by thoughts of achieving our goal, we are able to jump out of bed an hour early, strap on our running shoes, and run. Despite being sore, tired, and comforted by our beds… we manage to get up and repeat the process on days 2, 3, 4. Some keep running, but most of us stop.


Are the people who kept running better than us, more disciplined, or possess more willpower? No, probably not. Their brains luckily found a sufficient reward in running and created a habit before the conscious motivation toward their goal waned.


By focusing only on the routine, and leaving the cue and the reward to chance, we make it much less likely that we will ever form the habit we want.


If you attached the routine to a specific cue and make sure you’re being rewarded from day one, then the likelihood of creating a habit goes way up.


Every night before you go to bed, put your running shoes next to the toilet… and after your run give yourself a small piece of your favorite chocolate. Sounds silly, but that’s exactly what researchers did, and it resulted in much better long term changes. A little dark chocolate is actually good for you and overtime, you probably won’t even need it. The extrinsic reward of the chocolate will likely be replaced by other intrinsic rewards. Basically, you tricked the brain at first… you gamed the system.




Tiny Habits

BJ Fogg from Stanford University is working with a theory he calls Tiny Habits. Guess what it’s made of? Yep… a cue (he calls it a trigger), the behavior (routine), and a reward.


BJ believes that since repetition is at the core of creating a habit, our success will depend on how motivated we are and how hard the behavior is. If the behavior is very hard and we’re not motivated to do it, then it only makes sense that it’s not going to get done very often. However, if something is very very easy to do, then it should take almost no motivation… and that’s what BJ is after. A sort of seed habit with the potential to take root and grow into something more.

Fogg Behavior Model

His formula is simple, commit to doing a tiny behavior immediately after an existing habit and then celebrate. So you might say “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth” and then you’d say “Way to go… you’re the man”. Pick a behavior that doesn’t take more than 30 seconds and commit to just 5 days.



Habits automate about 45% of our behavior each and every day, like our own little personal assistant.  “I have a report due in 2 hours, please pour me a cup of tea while I’m thinking about this report.” Sweet!  What would you like your personal assistant to do for you?


photo by emma.maria (flickr creative commons)
photo by lee mccoy (flickr creative commons)


Co-Founder of NutritionGeeks, retired USAPL drug-free powerlifter, volunteer youth wrestling coach, father of 3 amazing boys and interested in all things health

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