chocolate chip cookieChanging a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. And it’s not always simple.

But it is possible. And now we understand how.

It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop”. This is a three-part process.

Let’s say I have a habit of grabbing a cookie every afternoon at 2 p.m.

First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. In my case, the cue is that I often feel uninspired and sluggish in mid-afternoon.

Then there’s the routine behavior itself. This behavior is what we usually mean when we call something a habit. In my case, it’s stopping by the neighborhood bakery and buying a chocolate chip-walnut cookie.

The third step is the reward: something your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future. More on that part later.

Okay, 3 parts to a habit. Got it.

So how does knowing these 3 parts actually help us change a habit?

As Charles Duhigg states in his book The Power of Habit Read an excerpt“The weird thing about rewards is that we don’t know what we’re actually craving. Once you tell someone about the cue and the reward and you require them to pinpoint it, the habit (the routine behavior) becomes much, much easier to change.”

At first I thought the reward was the cookie. On closer examination, I realized the reward is actually the social connection. On a typical day, I spend a lot of time in my office, working alone. So a change of scenery, joking with the owner, browsing the new books he has displayed at the counter – all this gives me a sense of belonging and fun.  Sure, the cookie tastes good momentarily. But I crave the connection and stimulation more than I want the cookie.

Now that I know the REAL reward, I can change the habit of eating a ginormous cookie every day. Each afternoon, I can choose to go to the bakery, chat with the owner, browse a book and order a cup of tea.

*** Challenge for the week*** 

Is there a habit that’s been difficult for you to change?

Tease out the cue, the routine behavior and the reward. Be honest. Think of how you could get the reward you crave by substituting a new behavior for the habitual behavior.

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