Making and breaking the habit loop

One of the biggest myths about creating habits is that they take a lot of willpower. In reality, the willpower that is needed is really to decide to set yourself up for success and take yourself out of situations that will require you to make a choice and push you out of unconscious and into conscious decision-making, rather than repeatedly making those choices. And this is where your efficiency-focused brain comes in.

The framework for habits – both good and bad – is referred to as the habit loop, in which the following cycle is repeated:

  • Cue – Something triggers us to want to do something or achieve some state of being
  • Craving – The state of being that we wish to achieve
  • Response – What we do to attempt to get to that state
  • Reward – What we achieve when we reach to that state

When this cycle successfully repeats itself, your brain stores the pattern as a useful nugget that it might want to use as a shortcut the next time. “Hey, last time I was stressed at work [cue] and just needed to take a step back and relax [craving], I went to the coffee store and got a delicious caramel macchiato [response] and felt much better and was able to be more productive the rest of the afternoon [reward].”

These saved shortcuts are habits – your brain’s way of decreasing the executive function needed every time to do something that can be automated. Often they form without you doing so consciously, though often these are the, uh, less-than-desirable habits. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and can’t figure out why you are having difficulty, those delicious caramel macchiatos might have something to do with it.

Here’s the beautiful part, though. Once you know what the cues are, you can change the response and essentially hijack the habit and replace it with something that is a better response. For example, if stress at the office is a trigger and calming down is your craving, could you decide to go for a quick walk outside, call a friend or do some quick meditation instead of heading to the coffee store?

Of course, not all habit loops are so clear cut. You may need to spend a fair amount of time thinking about what you’re doing that you want to do less of or cut out. Then think about why you might be doing it (what are you craving?). Then it can be a bit easier to identify the cues.

I don’t mean to suggest that breaking bad habits is easy, though. Not by a long shot. And a big factor is our environment. There have been some interesting studies related to people with substance abuse issues (if ever there was a challenging bad “habit”). What the studies have shown is that even when people go to rehab or a type of program, when the program is over, they go back to the same environment where the triggers for the substance abuse still exist, making it more likely they will relapse into the bad habit.

At the same time, when we are able to totally change our environment, we can get a fresh start. There was apparently a lot of opium use by American soldiers in Vietnam. To the point that there was a concern that there may be a huge opioid crisis when they came back home. But surprisingly, that didn’t happen. Yes, some, had addiction issues, but the substantial majority were okay. The study suggests that it was because they were no longer under the stressful conditions of war, they were separated from their friends who had engaged in opioid use, had new goals and were surrounded by friends and family. Interesting, huh?

Similar studies have shown that moving, going away to college and starting a new job, for example, can help disrupt your habit loops, both for better and worse. In moving to a new place, you might be able to make new friends with great habits. But it might also disrupt your workout routine as you have to find a new running group or gym. But knowing the habit loop sequence can help you attune to the issues so that you can identify potential disruptions and capitalize on them.

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