Why we must understand the habit loop
1: We think the choices we make each day are the result of well-considered decisions.
The science tells us otherwise. “A Duke University researcher found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.
“At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog,” Charles writes. “Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology.”
Our goal for today’s post?
To better understand how this process works so we can create good habits and eliminate bad habits.
2: Habits form as a result of a three-step loop inside our brain, Charles writes.
It begins with a trigger or cue which tells our brain to shift into “automatic mode.” Next, is the routine or the habit itself, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Lastly, there is the reward, which tells our brain if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.
“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,” Charles writes.
Yesterday, we explored why when habits emerge, our brain stops fully participating in decision-making. “It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks,” Charles observes. “So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”
Our brain’s dependence on automatic routines can work to our advantage (good habits) or be dangerous (bad habits). Our brains don’t differentiate between good and bad habits.
“Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people,” Charles writes. “Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds).
“Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation,” Charles observes.
The key point?
Habits “shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Charles notes.
3: A real-life example of how habits play out in our lives? Fast food. The research shows families don’t plan on eating fast food on a consistent basis.
But then life kicks in. “When the kids are starving and you’re driving home after a long day—to stop, just this once, at McDonald’s or Burger King,” Charles writes. “The meals are inexpensive. It tastes so good. After all, one dose of processed meat, salty fries, and sugary soda poses a relatively small health risk, right? It’s not like you do it all the time…”
In time, this routine becomes our new habit.
“Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads,” notes Charles.
The key point? “Habits emerge without our permission,” Charles observes. “But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.”
We can alter this automatic patterns by becoming aware of the habit loop and its triggers, routines, and rewards. We can make a decision, a conscious choice to change our habits. “And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit,” Charles writes.
The really good news?
“Habits aren’t destiny. We can create new habits. Old habits can be changed or replaced,” Charles writes. “We just need to understand the habit loop and how it works.”
Reflection: Consider my most important goal for the year. How can I create or change my habits to achieve my goal?
Action: Take action. Start today.