Goodbye, Willpower. Hello, Habits: How to Master the Habit Loop and Make Changes that Last

Goodbye, Willpower. Hello, Habits: How to Master the Habit Loop and Make Changes that Last

Think about your morning routine. You wake up. You brush your teeth. You take a shower. Have you ever gone through your typical activities and realized you don’t remember doing any of them? It’s almost like your conscious mind shuts off and you go through the motions without having to think about them at all. You’re on auto-pilot. This is thanks to the power of habit.

A habit is a pattern of behavior followed regularly until it has become almost involuntary. You can harness this power to make big changes in your life by understanding how habits work. Whether you want to exercise more, quit smoking, or eat healthier, knowing how habits are formed and using them to your advantage can help you reach your goals. 

The would-be runner

Like so many of us, Debbie made a New Year’s resolution this year. Her doctor told her that she needed to move more, so she decided to become a runner. She bought new leggings and a sweatband. She told her husband, her friends, and her coworkers about her intention to run. But good intentions weren’t enough. On January 2nd, Debbie got up a half hour early, rummaged in the closet to find her running shoes, jogged around her block without a clear destination, got winded, and stopped. Exhausted and feeling defeated, she walked back home, her doctor’s voice scolding her in her head. The whole activity just took too much energy, mentally and physically.

The habit loop 

What Debbie didn’t know was that it’s possible to decrease the mental energy needed to start a new habit by following three steps: creating the right cues, responding to the cues with your desired action, and being rewarded. Each time your brain goes through these steps—the habit loop—the activity becomes more natural and automatic. You’re literally rewiring your brain. 

Cue it up 

Our environment plays a big role in making new habits. Creating a situation that helps us complete our new habit reduces friction, the enemy of habit formation. Friction is anything that gets in the way of doing a new activity. 

For Debbie, searching for her running shoes in the morning caused friction—it slowed her down and added an extra step before she started her run. By placing her running shoes next to her bed the night before, Debbie would not only reduce friction in her new routine, she’d be creating a powerful cue. A cue is a trigger that activates a routine. Debbie sees her running shoes. She knows it’s time to run. No decisions required. Setting up your surroundings to reduce friction and increase cues is the first step to making habits stick. 

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Repetition—a lot of it—is the second step in habit formation. Repeating an activity day in and day out until it becomes automatic—like brushing your teeth in the morning—is the goal. The first few times you do any new habit will be the hardest. That’s because you have to rely on willpower to get going. But by repeating your new activity over and over again, you’re creating new neural pathways in your brain. Over time, willpower gets replaced by habit, and the new activity becomes much less of a struggle.  

Part of what made Debbie’s one and only run so exhausting was that she was still using her conscious mind to make all the decisions, like deciding what route to take. If she’d persisted in developing her running habit, after a few days, she’d find a route that felt comfortable, and maybe a few days after that, she wouldn’t give her route another thought. She’d just go.

Reward yourself

Last in the habit loop is the reward. A reward is something pleasurable associated with a specific action. The reward is crucial in building habits. There are two types of rewards in the habit loop: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic rewards are the most effective, as they come from the action itself. It could be the rush of endorphins—the feel-good chemical—that floods your body when you exercise. If your new habit doesn’t give you an intrinsic reward, you could treat yourself with an extrinsic reward. This could be luxuriating in a long shower after exercising, or letting yourself indulge in a latte after resisting a cigarette. 

Debbie didn’t have any rewards for her new activity, either intrinsic or extrinsic. All she had was her doctor’s harsh words replaying in her head. Instead, to find her reward, she could have reflected on why she wanted to exercise aside from just following doctor’s orders. She would have discovered that she wanted to become healthier to have more energy to play with her children. That in and of itself might be reward enough. 

Progress over perfection 

The good news when it comes to habit formation is that you don’t have to be perfect to be successful. Research shows that missing a day or two of your new activity doesn’t mean that you have to start over. It just means that you need to look at your environment and make your cues and rewards more compelling. 

By far the most important part of creating new habits is sometimes the hardest: being kind to yourself. It’s easy to get down on yourself after setbacks. When the going gets tough, try speaking to yourself like you’d speak to a friend. And like Debbie, remember why you began making the new habit in the first place. Focusing on your “why”—your reason behind changing your habits—can make the “how” a little easier.

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Sara Huneke
Apr 19, 2021

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