The Habit Loop: Your Program for Change

Why’s it so hard to get up without hitting snooze on the alarm 5 times? Why do we struggle with motivation when we know we should exercise? And why are foods like pizza and poutine impossible to say no to? After all, we always hear about amazing transformations that seem to happen overnight. Obese people lose 100+ lb. Lifelong alcoholics get sober. The footy team with the worst record in the league goes on to win consecutive grand finals. What do all these people have in common? And how the hell are getting so much done while I battle with the snooze button every morning? They're able to make major shifts by transforming habits. They focus on daily practices that shape every aspect of our lives. Let’s look at how you can do the same.

What Are Habits?

Habits are the common decisions and actions we perform every day. It may seem like our choices are built around well-thought out decisions, but they’re not. Most of our day is built around habits. The hours you spend exercising, the number of times a day you check Facebook, and the food you eat are all habits.

A Duke University research paper found that 45% of actions people performed each day were habits. Your life is essentially the sum these automatic actions. Over the past two decades, scientist and marketers (sneaky buggers!) have started to understand how habits work, and how we can change them.

How We Form Habits

The brain is the most sophisticated system known to man (mine doesn’t seem to fire on all cylinders every day, but that’s another story). When we repeat a series of actions enough, our brain forms an automatic routine known as chunking. This is how habits are formed. It’s how we reverse the car out of the driveway the exact same way every time effortlessly. Scientists think that the brain creates habits for efficiency. By building automatic actions, your brain is free to think about complex tasks. Imagine if you had to put mental energy into tying your shoe laces or brushing your teeth every day. It wouldn’t be fun. Your brain would get overloaded with basic daily actions.

The Habit Loop

In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, he describes how habits are built through a 3-step loop. It’s like a basic computer program. Here’s what it looks like:

 
           Image source: The Power of Habit

           Image source: The Power of Habit

 
  1. Cue: the trigger initiates the behaviour and tells your brain to switch on autopilot.
  2. Routine: this is the behaviour itself.
  3. Reward: the reward is the benefit you get from the behaviour.

Let’s take a look at an example of how this plays out.

  1. Cue: my alarm goes off in the morning (pain in the ass of a trigger).
  2. Routine: I stumble around like a half-cut Aussie. Then magically find myself in the bathroom brushing my teeth.
  3. Reward: pearly whites and fresh breath. Game on.

Repetition creates the habit. But what really cements it, is the powerful connection between the cue and reward. This connection creates a craving that fuels the process. It’s why quitting smoking and eating junk food are so hard to stop. When the cue (morning tea time) kicks in, we start craving a doughnut. Your brain starts to experience pleasure before the reward (doughnut) is eaten. This drives us to close the gap with a delicious treat.

Okay, so now we know a little about habits. Let’s see how we can use this info to make our lives better.

Build New Habits

To start a new habit, you need to dream big but think small.

The habits (good or bad) you do automatically every day (e.g., brushing your teeth or eating junk food) are the result of small, consistent actions. Your brain does them on autopilot.

If you want to start a new habit, it makes sense to start out with small, easy practices you can do consistently. Let’s take a look at an example.

Say you want to lose 30 lb. The typical approach would be to start off with a surge of motivation. Get some initial results. Then lose sight as willpower, motivation, and results wane.

Setting big goals without building systems and habits is inviting failure. Instead of focusing on losing 30 lb, shift your focus to daily practices. Become the type of person that practices habits that lead to weight loss. To do this, you need to know what the most important practices are (get help or research this if you need to) and how to break them down.

Let’s say you identified eating whole foods 80% of the time as the most important practice. Now, your only task is to focus on eating well. But you can’t go from 0-100. You need to break this down further and start small.

Starting with small, consistent actions proves that you’re the type of person that can achieve your goal. So, let’s break down eating whole foods. To make it small and repeatable, we’ll scale it to our comfort level, so motivation and willpower aren’t roadblocks. Say you eat takeout most nights. Don’t try to switch completely to home cooked meals. Start with something so easy that you can’t fail. You could try buying a premade salad once or twice a week. Once you’ve nailed that habit, build it up. This might seem like a simple perspective shift, but it’s a powerful tool. You focus on being just a tiny bit better each day. It's like compound interest over the course of a year.

When you take the small wins approach, you’re deciding who you want to be (someone who eats healthy food and is fit) and proving it with small, consistent actions (eating a salad once or twice a week).

We often try to overhaul our life overnight. We hear about amazing transformations and don’t see all the work that went into them. We only see the tip of the iceberg. All the consistent efforts, hard work, and ups and downs are hidden below the water. So, we tend to think that change should happen fast. In reality, it’s a steady process of building consistent actions into your routine. Don’t get fooled by icebergs. Just show up consistently, and the habit will grow.

Breaking Bad Habits

Both bad and good habits are in your life for a reason. In some way, they provide you with a reward. Even if it’s not good for you, like smoking. That’s why going cold turkey often fails. You can’t remove a reward without replacing it with something else to fill the void. To change a habit, you need to pull it apart to find out what the cue and rewards are. Once you know these, you can change the routine (bad habit like smoking) to something healthy. We’ll get into an example further down.

Once we develop a bad habit, it’s always there waiting for the right cue. That’s why it’s so hard to get out and exercise when you're used to lounging around. But it’s not all bad news. Now you know how habits work, you can tweak the habit loop to replace a bad one. This point is important, so I’ll say it again: you don’t get rid of a bad habit, you replace it with a good one.

Below is a summary of Duhigg’s framework to change bad habits. It's not intended to be a one size fits all approach. It’s a starting point for pulling your habits apart and tweaking things. Habits are complex and change takes time and persistence. Overeating is different to smoking, which is different to gambling, and so on.

Your job is to think like a scientist. That means experiments don’t fail. It’s all just data pointing you in the right direction. Change takes time. If your habit experiments don’t work the first time, don’t get disheartened. Just keep at it.

To change a bad habit, you need to identify the parts of the loop. Remember: to change a habit, the cue and reward stay the same, but you change the routine to something positive. Let’s look at an example.

The Framework

Step 1: Identify the Routine

Let’s say that every day after work you meet up with your mates for beers down at the local. This has led to the dreaded beer gut, and it’s a costly habit you’d like to change. You’ve tried to stop it, but every afternoon you find yourself knocking back cold Carltons.

The first step in changing the habit is to identify the routine. This is the behavior you want to change – drinking at the pub every afternoon.

Step 2: Experiment With Rewards

You need to identify what reward you get from drinking. Is it a chance to relax after work? Maybe you like to socialize with your mates. To find out what’s driving the behavior, you experiment with rewards. Take your time with this and try different things. For example, you could try heading to the pub and not drinking one day. On another day, you could try skipping the pub to go for a run. You’re simply adjusting the routine, so it provides a different reward. By doing this, you can zero in on what’s driving the craving.

After finishing each experiment set an alarm for 15 minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself if you’re still craving beers at the pub. If the answer is yes after going to the pub and not drinking, you know that it’s not the social aspect that rewards you. If you answer no after going for a run, maybe it’s about reducing stress and feeling good. You get the idea. Just keep trying different things until you work out what the reward is that you’re seeking.

Step 3: Isolate the Cue

Now you know the reward, let’s look at the cue by using these simple questions:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

Whenever you feel the urge to head out drinking, answer these 5 questions for a week. You’ll be able to look back and see a pattern. In the case of drinking, the cue is obvious – end of the workday. But it’s not always that clear.

Step 4: Create a Plan

Now that you’ve broken down the habit loop into its components, you’ll need a plan to change the behavior.  You know your cue (knock off time at work), routine (go to the pub and drink), and reward (reducing stress after a long day). You can now change the habit. Psychologists refer to this as ‘implementation intentions’. It’s a plan to change the habit that you commit to. It looks like this:

At 5 pm when I knock off work, I’ll grab my exercise gear and go for a run.

The goal is to reprogram the routine with running, as it gives you the same reward as drinking (reduces stress). This isn’t a magic bullet or do a few times type of thing. It takes work and effort to change habits. The key is consistency and making sure you’ve nailed the correct reward. Like I said earlier, drinking is in your life for a reason, so you can’t just remove it. But now you know that running makes you feel good, you can reprogram the habit.

Step 5: Believe You Can Change

The final step is believing that you can change. As Duhigg points out:

For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

You don’t need a big group. Find someone to help with accountability. This can be your partner, friend, co-worker, etc. You can also surround yourself with positive people that have made changes. Having one other person to build your belief up initially will set you up for success.

How Long Does It Take?

Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s work on self-image resulted in the myth of it taking 21 days for new habits to form. But research shows that it can take much longer to reprogram our brains. When changing a habit, there’s no magic number. But on average, you're looking at 2-3 months. So focus on small, consistent steps. If you’ve been doing something for the last 10 years, it’ll take time. But you’ll get there.

The Habit Challenge – Take Action!

I write to share my experiences and knowledge with you. But my ultimate goal is to give you information that’ll help you eat, move, and live optimally. Get these right, and you’ll transform your body and change your life. So, I like to end each post with some actionable steps you can take immediately.

To get the most out of this post, commit to changing one bad habit or starting a new positive one right now. Build some accountability in by posting your habit challenge below, or on social media.

Finally, if you want help in putting together a customised habit based program to transform your body, hit me up here.

P.S. If you liked this blog post, I’d owe you one if you could get it out there by emailing it to a friend or sharing it on social media. You might also be interested in my free e-book: The Battle Tested Body Transformation Guide.