As per psychology, there is no habit known to the humankind that doesn’t have an associated structure. The structure of the habits is commonly referred to as habit loops. These loops can essentially be divided into three components. The first component of a habit loop is called the cue. It is primarily the trigger that is frequently based on the environment. It has the potential to generate a signal in your brain informing it about the activation of a habit loop and which one of them is to be used under the current circumstances. The second component of the habit loop is known as the routine. The routine represents the action, either mental or physical, that you are likely to take as soon as you have been triggered via a cue. And finally, the third and last component of the habit loop is called the reward. As the name represents, it signifies the pleasure or contentment that you experience once the craving has been satisfied.
It is the repetition of this pattern over and over again that hardwires the habit into our brains to an extent of automation. In the language of neuroscience, the phenomenon is known as long-term potentiation. A thorough understanding of the habit loops and how they manifest, therefore, has the potential to pave our way to stop this cycle in an attempt to avoid a negative habit and replace it with a newer one that has a better, more positive impact on our overall well-being.
For instance, it could be a part of your habit to have an excess amount of ice cream after dinner as you lie down on the couch and enjoy your favorite TV show. It won’t be fair to call it a positive habit in any way since you are avoiding exercise, you’re being lazy, and you’re eating a lot of something that isn’t healthy for your body. It will eventually lead to gaining a lot of extra weight over the months. But unfortunately, you may be aware of the effect this habit will have on your overall well-being, and yet you find it impossible for yourself to break out of it.
Under such circumstances, what is required is the recognition of the habit loop and a better understanding of how they function. You need to be clear about the routine that you are looking forward to altering, you must be aware of the trigger that gets the ball rolling, and you must be familiar with the reward that you are getting out of this particular routine. Once you have an understanding of this cycle of cue-routine-reward, you can put yourself in a much better position to replace this negative habit with a more positive one.
What’s The Cue?
As mentioned earlier, the cue is most likely a part of your environment that triggers and activates the habit loop that pushes you to revise your routine. The reason why you are likely to find it hard to recognize the cues is that a lot of your habits are mostly being driven out of the unconscious information that is being fed to your brain. For instance, say that you take your dinner at 8 o’ clock in the evening every single day. Have you ever stopped to think why is it so? Is it primarily because you start to feel hungry at this time? Or is it possible that your habit loop is activated as soon as you see the clock showing 8 o’clock?
The cues which trigger your habit loops have been categorized by the psychologists into the following:
Location: The place or the kind of environment that you are in when your routine is activated.
Time: The time of the day that causes a trigger of your habit loop.
Mood: Your emotional state that you can most likely associate with the activation of the habit loop.
Thoughts: The kind of thoughts that pop into your mind right before the routine is triggered.
People: The people who are likely to be around when you are following your habit.
Activity: Any particular activity that is done right before the activation of the habit loop.
Once you have established a thorough understanding of your habit loops, you can make use of the information to stimulate the alteration in your behavior.
For instance, if you have a habit of drinking, and you have realized that you are triggered to act out your routine when you are in a certain kind of a party or with some particular friends, the simplest way for you to create a wall against following this habit would be to take a break from these people and such parties.
Find Out The Actual Craving
Now that you are aware of the trigger that is putting the habit into action, it would be a great idea to alter the reward and find out the actual craving of your brain. Let’s take the example of eating ice cream after the dinner that we highlighted earlier. Your aim here to should be to experiment with a range of rewards and see how your brain responds to each one of them. It’ll create a better understanding of what you are receiving by sticking to the habit. Eventually, you will end up with a proper answer to whether you are eating ice cream because you have a feeling of hunger or perhaps you are just looking for some activity to pass the time as you are bored.
The reasons which could play a role in driving your habit and putting the ball in action could be plenty. But the reason behind each of our actions is not always convenient to be understood. Provided that you experiment with various rewards, you can start to develop a better understanding of why you are stubbornly being engaged to the routine and what do you get from it.
Remember that the process of understanding your craving can take a lot of time. For instance, you can start with replacing the routine from ice cream to a chocolate bar. In an event that you still feel the need to eat a ton ice cream afterward, it’ll be fair for you to draw the conclusion that your craving is not hunger related or the reward that you are getting out of your routine is not the satisfaction of your appetite.
Similarly, it is possible that having ice cream after dinner was a family activity for you. You are habitual to have it with your siblings that enable you to connect with them and have a proper conversation. If such was the scenario, then it is more than possible that your craving is being driven out of the need to socialize with your family. Under such circumstances, if you replaced the habit of eating ice cream after the dinner with a session of a video game with your siblings, the craving for the ice cream, theoretically, should go away. If it does, it would imply that you have found the reward that as associated with your habit and have satisfied it with a different routine.
The above mentioned was only a single example but if you start to think about it, you will find a structure comprising of a cue, a routine, and a reward for each and every single one of your habits. What needs to be understood is that you do various things for a whole range of reasons. But the endpoint, the reward that you get out of each of your activity is primarily the appetite of your brain that needs to be satisfied. The kind of routine that you choose to satisfy this appetite is not a matter of importance for your mind. In other words, all it cares about is the destination while the journey is totally irrelevant for the brain. With a fair understanding of this concept, we can make it easier for ourselves to identify our negative habits, recognize the loop, replace the habit with a new one that has a structure that is capable of satisfying the appetite of the brain for the same reward.
Lastly, one must not condone the importance of having an implementation intention. Once you are aware of the cue, routine, reward pattern of your negative habit, you must plan to change and replace it with a new, positive habit. It is all a matter of commitment, dedication, and persistence. All you have to do is to make a firm intention of changing your negative habit and believe in yourself to have the authority to replace it with a positive habit. If you can merge the aforementioned information with a solid plan and an implementation intention, there is nothing that can stop you from pulling out of the habits which are counterproductive for your personal and professional life. As always, learn to give yourself a break from time to time. There will be relapses along the process. What’s required is to stay away from despair and be patient and persistently focused at your target.