‘All our life, so far it has definite form, is but a mass of habits’. William Jones wrote (1892).
Everything we do, from brushing our teeth, to checking our Instagram or deciding on going to the gym or watching a series on Netflix is habitual behavior. As a personal growth and productivity hacker, I’m truly fascinated by habits. From understanding why certain habits get conditioned in our being, to more importantly the process of how to implement 'new' and change 'bad' habits.
In this article, I want to dig into the process of how habits become automatic and what we can do to change it. Recently I read the book 'the power of habit' (I highly recommend it) by Charles Duhigg. In this book, he explains the automatic routine of chunking. The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic is routine.
Example: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush without thinking about it. Or more complex, the patterns that make you drive a car with causing an accident.
Our brains are always looking for ways to save time and energy. That’s how we’re biologically wired and it makes sense in terms of our survival. It saves energy our energy creating an automatic routine about how to brush our teeth or the route we drive to our work.
If we would consciously think about every action we take, we wouldn't have for creating speers (in the past) or building rocket ships to mars (today) because we'd be to busy with minor bullshit.
The three-step habit loop
In his book, Duhigg Charles explains that this automatic routine always go through a certain process. The three-step habit loop (the cue, the routine, and the reward).
1) The cue.
This is the trigger that signals our brain to go into auto mode and what habit to use:
Example: Brushing your teeth. Cue: getting ready for bed.
2) The routine
Then there is the actual routine. This can be psychical, mental or emotional.
3) The reward.
The reward is crucial because it tells the brain that the routine is worth remembering (so it becomes automatic).
Example: Brushing your teeth. The reward: white teeth, low dentist costs, fresh breath.
Using the habit loop in your advantage
Good and bad habits
The problem with our brain is that it doesn’t recognize the difference between good and bad habits. As long as the reward is good the brain will save time and energy, and make it automatic.
So let’s take a look at a bad habit like smoking:
The pleasurable sensation nicotine gives is rewarding enough for the brain to make smoking a routine. So every time a smoker feels stressed (cue), smoking (the process) will give instant pleasure (reward). Your brain doesn’t care if smoking, in the long run, kills you and puts you in bad shape. So it'll make it habitual.
Changing and creating new habits
The cool thing is that we can change habits by only changing the routine and keeping the reward in place. However, it takes conscious effort. It starts with admitting that you have a bad habit, from there you search for the cue.
Let’s say you want to create a powerful morning routine to kick-start your day. Currently you probably already have cues, routines, and rewards that cause the brain's auto mode:
The alarm clock goes off (cue), you snooze (routine) and get the short-term pleasure of more sleep (the reward). Or it might be the same cue, but a different routine and reward:
Your alarm clock goes off (cue), you grab your phone to check social media (routine), in return you feel the short-term pleasure of dopamine shots in your brain (reward).
1) Put your alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom, so that you can't hit snooze and have to get out of bed. 2) Leave your phone outside of your bedroom before you go to sleep so that you don’t check your social media first thing in the morning.
By doing these actions you'll prevent your brain from going into auto mode. While you give yourself the chance to start a new habitual pattern. Like starting the day with a short work-out or meditation session. You’ll change the routine and have a better reward.
You can apply this to every area of your life. As long as you're aware of the 3 step habit loop. You need to know the cue's and rewards that cause the routine to become automatic.
Additionally knowing why you want to implement certain habits is crucial in making the new routine consistent. I previously wrote an article about finding you 'why's. Go check it out!
Start creating powerful habits today!