Habits are created by repetition, and there’s a clear neuroscientific explanation for how they are formed, maintained, and changed. The process within our brains is believed to be a three-step loop.
1. There is a cue (such as time or place) and a trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode.
2. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental, or emotional.
3. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
One of the critical components is to discover the cue and the reward that goes with that routine or cue (for instance, what does your morning coffee give you?).
So, over time, if the loop is continually repeated — 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 (and the feelgood ‘dopamine’ reward system tells the brain that the habit is a good idea). Eventually, a habit is born. When something is not yet a habit, it is vulnerable to our thought process or rationalisation, such as ‘I think I’ll skip the gym’. When habits are truly ingrained, thinking is off the table. There is no ‘will I/won’t I?’ – it just happens. The aim, in a way, is to avoid thinking.
4 Steps to Hacking your Habit Loop
4 Steps To Change Your Habit Loop
1) Identify your loop: what are the cues, routines and rewards that lead to your habit. Look at the circumstances surrounding your behaviour, such as the time of the day and the emotions you’re feeling. For instance, after a hard day at work (cue), you drive to a takeaway restaurant (routine) and order a fatty, calorific dish (reward).
2) Explore alternatives: now that you know your ‘habit loop’, brainstorm healthier routines when the cue hits (end of a hard working day). For instance, you could put a slow-cooker with delicious chicken stew on, and it will be there for you when you arrive home. You may also decide to buy some bath salts for a bath after dinner (reward).
3) Commit: test-drive some new routines and approach them as a series of experiments. Maybe you can try a different recipe or exercise or meditation.
4) Anticipate setbacks: change is incredibly hard. You will slip up, and you should expect that. Please don’t engage in negative self-talk and stick with it. Think about times you might find particularly challenging and how you’ll deal with them ahead of time.
I hope these tips can help you change your habits for good.