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Habit Loops: making change automatic

Back in February we introduced Charles Duhigg’s theory that we use habits to make our thought processes easier. This is because the habit is an energy saving mechanism for our brain.

Cue, action and reward means when you see X, you do Y and you get Z. You respond to the cue and your habit formation does the rest. We compared this to needing petrol, filling the tank, buying a chocolate bar when you pay. The cue of needing petrol leads to the reward of eating chocolate with little or no thinking in between.

This means that our change planning process must take into account all of these individual and automatic cue, action and reward loops. We must consider each occasion where we act against our health goal, why it happened and what perceived benefit we gained. The challenge is to understand the process without becoming bogged down in the detail.

Let’s use Joyce and her desire to stop smoking.

Joyce’s One Big Change: Stop Smoking

Joyce’s cues for a cigarette: morning coffee, after meals, with a glass of wine, when on the telephone, when driving.

Each of these cues automatically leads to Joyce lighting up a cigarette without thinking. The morning coffee or glass of wine simply would not be the same without it. The trick is for Joyce to be aware of these cue moments and alter either the cue or the action so as to lessen the desire for the reward. Perhaps Joyce will do the crossword with her coffee or go for a walk after her meals instead. By anticipating each cue, Joyce can take action.

Although it’s not a simple task to stop smoking, at least every occasion leads to one single cigarette that either will or will not be smoked. Success is very definite in this scenario. This becomes more complicated when considering something like weight loss. We choose to smoke and have to make an effort to buy tobacco but we all have to eat, after all.

Let’s look at a slightly more complex situation.

David knows he must lose weight. His blood pressure is high and his GP has told him he is at risk of type 2 diabetes. He takes very little exercise and works at a desk all day. His office has a good canteen and there are weekly celebrations with cakes and pub visits. Everyone expects David to tuck in and makes comments on the few occasions he has tried to avoid the treats or heavy lunches. David’s cues, actions and rewards are both more numerous and complex than Joyce’s. He cannot escape them as he will always have to eat and there will often be work colleagues around him.

David’s goal to lose weight seems insurmountable. He must consider changes to his diet, his routine, his work socialisation and his colleagues’ expectations. Each one of these changes may have multiple cue, action and reward habit loops.

Here are two examples of David’s cue, action and reward loops:

  1. David has coffee at 10.30am. This is when the morning mail arrives and it prompts him to put the kettle on. At this time he always chats with his friend Jan who sits near the kitchen and therefore the biscuit tin. David eats 3 biscuits while the kettle boils.

  2. At lunch, David is given an extra scoop of mash at the canteen. Neil, the canteen server, always gives him extra mash as a treat. David feels obliged to finish it so as not to offend Neil.

Although David’s big change must be to eat less in order to lose weight, his habit loops may not necessarily be motivated by a desire to eat. Does this mean that for David to save himself from diabetes he must understand every single cue, action and reward loop all through the day? Joyce could distinguish hers easily but David’s reasons for eating more are far harder to quantify.

Thankfully, we do not have to analyse every scenario to manage our habit loops. This is where planning is important but over-planning slows us down. If you were told that you had to anticipate every habit loop and think of a solution before you could begin to make any change, how would you feel? The phrase “paralysis by analysis” comes to mind.

For David to make the long term health change he and his GP both want, he can choose whether to start with a timed, difficulty or lifestyle related change and then look at the action that he wants to change. Charles Duhigg recommends altering either the action or the perceived reward until the reasons for the habit loop are understood. Then it becomes simpler to modify the loop to achieve a healthier outcome.

In example 1, David makes coffee at 10.30 and eats 3 biscuits. To understand his habit loop he could try bringing juice or water to his desk. He could try making coffee quickly and returning to his desk without the biscuits. He could bring an apple to eat while the kettle boils. It may be that although the biscuits are part of his routine, they are not the reward. Perhaps David will realise that the cue is the morning mail, the action is getting up to put the kettle on and the reward is catching up with Jan. David would have a better chat without a mouthful of digestives but they have become part of the daily habit. Now it is easier for David to decide how to change his habit loop and achieve his first step away from diabetes.

In example 2 Neil gives David extra mash and he feels obliged to finish it. While the cue here is genuine hunger and the action is going for lunch, the reward is making Neil happy, not extra mash. Now that David has practised changing his habit loop on Jan and the biscuits, he will see that he is more motivated by making friends than eating. He can compliment Neil on his excellent canteen and explain that as he is trying to eat less he must avoid the extra mash. He understands his own motives better now and is able to take action more easily.

You may have already tried to change a habit loop since you started reading this blog. Did you complete the one small change back in February? The little, insignificant change aimed to furnish you with information about how you feel when you make change? The one designed to give you a chance to celebrate? And did you celebrate? Take some time now to think of how you successfully managed to break that habit loop or introduce a new and healthier habit. Decide how long you would have to continue to achieve it in order to feel as if you were safely maintaining that change. View that change on your timeline to your bigger goals. Where does it fit? Now that you have begun, what is the next tiny goal?

By returning to the simplest to achieve habit loops and mastering them we can build confidence in our ability to tackle harder loops or avoid unhealthy triggers. Over time, the better health goal becomes in itself, habitual. This is very well summed up in a quote from Bill Gates, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next year and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction”.

You should have already completed your first change and patted yourself on the back so now it’s time to consider how you can leverage your new found skills and knowledge for even greater effect. In the next few weeks we’ll show you both gameplans and pitfalls when using the support of other people to gain momentum and speed you towards your big goal.

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