The best way to change habits.

Last week, I wrote about how habits work. If you missed that newsletter, I’ve added it to my blog and you can read it here.

This week, I want to discuss how to change habits.

Most of us have tried to change a habit, perhaps dozens of times, and failed. While this is totally normal human behavior, but it doesn’t have to be. It turns out, most of us have simply been using the wrong approach.

As a very brief refresher for last week:

Habits have three stages: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The Cue:  Some stimulus that initiates the routine.

The Routine: Any activity we’ve done so frequently that it becomes mindless.

The Reward: Upon completion of the routine, we are rewarded with some emotional satisfaction.

We actually have very little control over the cues. They’ll come no matter what. There’s no point in trying to change them. The same is true for the rewards. Our brains and bodies crave them and will continue to until that craving is met.

The key to changing habits is realizing what our cues and rewards are.

Once we know what initiates our habits we can start modifying our actions before we enter the mindless cycle of the routine. And as long as we know what feeling we are trying to achieve, we can make sure we pick a new routine that satisfies the same craving.

This is the key to changing habits. Be aware of the cue, pick a better routine, and make sure you stimulate the same reward with the new routine.

For example, one of my bad habits is sitting at my computer and spending way too much time watching stupid videos on YouTube. It’s not a productive activity in any way. But every time I sit down at my computer I click the YouTube tab and see what some computer algorithm thinks I should watch. After some time, my brain gets enough mental stimulation, and I go do something more productive.

Let’s break down the three parts of the habit.

The Cue: Sitting down at the computer. When I sit down in that specific chair, my brain decides to run the “YouTube Script.”

The Routine: That script is

The Reward: The stimulation my brain gets from those videos.

To change this habit, I need to adjust the routine with something else that will still stimulate my brain in a similar way. I decided to change the routine to reading a book. Now, when I sit down at my computer, I read something I find fascinating and engaging. I’ve tried reading text books, but it doesn’t work. I don’t get that reward I was craving, so I end up watching more videos. As long as I choose something stimulating, I get my fix and can move on with my day. So far, it’s worked great.

This also brings up one final point. The old routine will always be there lingering in your brain. If you start down that path again, you’ll follow it until it’s complete. This is why addicts and alcoholics can never have another drink or exposure to a drug. (Of course there are other factors involved in issues as complicated as addiction or alcoholism. I don’t mean to make light of those situations, but the habit piece is a huge part of it.)

What’s the take away of this part of the series? Notice your cues, notice your rewards, then pick good routines that initiate from the cue and achieve the reward you were craving. Do that, and you can change any habit in your life.

Yours in health,
Brian