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4 Steps to Changing a Habit

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Step Two: Experiment With Rewards


Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. We’re often not conscious of the cravings that actually drive our behaviors, though. We might think we’re craving a little online shopping, but it’s really something else we’re after — distraction from an odious task, or the chance to daydream a little.

To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. This might take a few days, or a week or sometimes even longer. No matter how long it takes, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change yet. At this point, just think of yourself as a scientist collecting data.

On the first day of the experiment, when you feel the urge to submit to a habit you want to change, adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward.

For instance, if it involves getting a cookie, you can still get up from your desk, but instead of walking to the cafeteria, walk around the block and go back to your desk without eating anything.

The next day, go to the cafeteria and buy a doughnut or a candy bar, and eat it at your desk. The day after that, go to the cafeteria, buy an apple, and eat it while chatting with your friends. Then, try a cup of coffee. Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, walk over to your not-too-busy friend’s office and gossip for a few minutes before going back to your desk.

You get the idea. What you choose to do instead of buying a cookie isn’t important. The point is to test different hypotheses to see which craving is driving your routine.

Addicts in recovery learn early that they almost never drink for the intoxication, but because it helps them access certain rewards: relief from work stress, escape from worries, or freedom from social anxiety.

So are you really craving the cookie, or is it a break from work? If it’s the cookie, is it because you’re hungry? (In which case, the apple should work just as well.) Or is it because you want the burst of energy the cookie provides? (If so, the coffee or apple might suffice.) Or are you wandering up to the cafeteria as an excuse to socialize, and the cookie is just a convenient excuse? (If so, walking to someone’s desk and gossiping for a few minutes may satisfy the urge.)

As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind. They can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on your feelings or just the first three words that pop into your head.

The reason why it’s important to write down three things (even if they are meaningless words) is twofold. It forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling. And studies show that writing down a few words helps you recall later what you were thinking at that moment.

At the end of the experiment, when you review your notes, it will be much easier to remember what you were thinking and feeling after you got the reward. This will help you figure out what it is.

After you’ve scribbled down a few words, set an alarm on your watch or computer for 15 minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: Do you still feel the urge for that cookie?

The purpose of this exercise is to determine the reward you’re craving. If, 15 minutes after eating a doughnut at your desk instead of a cookie by the cash register, you still feel an urge to get up and go to the cafeteria, then your habit isn’t motivated by a sugar craving. If, after gossiping at your colleague’s desk, you still want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn’t driving your behavior.

On the other hand, if 15 minutes after chatting with a friend you find it easy to get back to work, then you’ve identified the desired reward — temporary distraction and socializing — that your habit sought to satisfy.

By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.

Once you’ve figured out the routine and the reward, the next step involves identifying the cue — which is the last component of the habit loop. After that, you’ll be ready to make a plan.

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Read more: Addiction, Health, Self-Help, Spirit

By Charles Duhigg, From Experience Life

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Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.


+ add your own
7:57AM PDT on May 11, 2013

Thank you for the good tips

11:20AM PDT on May 3, 2013

thanks. I just need a reason to end a habit, if it isn't harmful i let it be. If it is, I research how its harmful, and I quit

2:36AM PDT on Apr 9, 2013

It really takes a lot of strong wills, and a lot of support from the loved ones around us.

5:57PM PST on Feb 28, 2013

Very good!!

10:11PM PST on Feb 26, 2013


1:33AM PST on Feb 24, 2013


7:10PM PST on Feb 6, 2013


10:51PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

Great article,
After reading this I decided to cultivate some good habits one by one and bring back my good habits I lost in the past.

And I've started this with Hab It! - Android motivation tool.

10:03AM PST on Jan 27, 2013

Good tips. Thank you.

8:14PM PST on Jan 23, 2013

Good post Megan,thanks

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