The secret ingredient to creating new habits
1: In the year 2002, researchers at New Mexico State University set out to figure out why people exercise consistently.
They studied 266 people who worked out at least three times a week. Most started running or lifting weights “almost on a whim, or because they had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stress in their lives,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.
So, why did their exercise become a habit?
Because they began to crave a specific reward.
“In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them ‘feel good’—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided,” Charles writes. “In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of ‘accomplishment’—they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.”
In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve explored the three step process to create a new habit: Cue, Routine, Reward.
The secret ingredient that drives our habits? Turning our reward into something we crave.
2: A group of scientists led by Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscience professor at the University of Cambridge, have studied how this process works in the brains of monkeys. First, Julio the monkey sees a shape on a computer screen. The researchers teach Julio how to perform a simple routine which results in him receiving a drop of blackberry juice.
As the experiment continues, and Julio becomes more practiced at the behavior, he begins anticipating the blackberry juice. As the habit becomes stronger, the brain probes “started recording the ‘I got the reward’ pattern the instant Julio sees shapes on the screen, before the juice arrived,” Charles writes.
Which is why habits are so powerful: They create “neurological cravings.”
Yesterday, we looked at how the marketers at Proctor & Gamble created a billion dollar product with Febreze when “they created a sense of craving—the desire to make everything smell as nice as it looked.”
3: So, how can we put this learning to work in our lives?
Say we want to start running in the mornings. We begin by selecting a simple cue or trigger, like leaving our running gear next to our bed. Next, we create a reward, like a midday snack, or cultivating a sense of accomplishment from tracking our miles.
“But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last,” writes Charles. “Only when [our] brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up [our] jogging shoes each morning.”
To make a habit stick, we prime ourselves to anticipate the reward: thinking about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush we will feel. When temptations arise, we focus on our craving for the reward.
We are wise to cultivate “the craving into a mild obsession.” Because “this is how new habits are created,” writes Charles, “by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”
Reflection: What is a habit I want to begin? Think about a meaningful reward.
Action: Purposefully turn that reward into a craving.