Changing habits is not just a matter of willpower, despite what you’ve probably learned. Sure, we all have habits we’ve tried to break and failed. And good habits we’ve tried to acquire and dropped. But the real obstacle to change for most people is not a lack of determination — it’s a lack of understanding how habit works.
As it happens, habits all get modified in somewhat the same way. When an individual successfully quits smoking or an organization changes collective behavior to improve its safety standards, there are certain universal patterns at work.
During their extensive studies of the underpinnings of habit in the 1990s, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. All habits, it turns out, consist of three parts: a routine, a reward and a cue. The researchers dubbed this the “habit loop.”
If you have a problem behavior with which you’re ready to part ways (and who doesn’t?), the following steps will show you how to deploy a framework so you can manifest the change you want to embrace.
Step One: Identify the Routine
Let’s say you have a bad habit. Maybe it’s a habit like my chocolate chip cookie routine. (I work at the New York Times, and for a long time every afternoon I’d head for the cafeteria for a cookie and a little socializing.)
Let’s say your habit has caused you to gain a few pounds. In fact, let’s say this habit has caused you to gain exactly 8 pounds, and that your wife has made a few pointed comments. You’ve tried to force yourself to stop — you even went so far as to put a Post-it on your computer that reads NO MORE COOKIES.
But every afternoon you manage to ignore that note, get up, wander toward the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and, while chatting with colleagues around the cash register, eat it. It feels good. Then it feels bad. Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist. Tomorrow will be different.
But tomorrow the habit takes hold again.
How do you ever hope to change this behavior, especially if the cookies are good?
The first step is to identify the routine. With most habits, the routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change. Let’s say your routine, like mine, is that you get up from your desk in the afternoon, walk to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while chatting with friends.
Next, some less obvious questions: What’s the cue for this routine? Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task?
And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes with that blast of sugar?
To figure this out, you’ll need to do a little experimentation.