So if you’re like me, you probably have at least a few bad habits you would like to break. But it’s tough because no matter how hard I try, I seem to slip back into the same old routines again and again.
We tend to think of a habits as a single thing, but actually, each habit has three components. There’s a cue which is a trigger for a behavior to start, and then there is a routine which is the behavior itself, and then finally a reward, which is how our brain learns to encode that automatic behavior for the future. And one of the big differences is that for years when people thought about habits, they focused in on the routine, on the behavior. But what we now know is that it’s these queues and these rewards that really shape how habits occur and how to change them.
The good news is we can also use this knowledge to our advantage. There was a big study that was done about how to create a habit to exercise regularly. And what they did is they told a group of people, “Okay, first of all choose an obvious queue: always go running at the same time every day or put your workout clothes next to your bed so that you see them first thing when you wake up.” And then they said, “Go for a run or go workout and when you get back from exercising, give yourself a small piece of chocolate.”
Now this is kind of counter intuitive, right? Because people who are exercising are trying to lose weight, not eat more chocolate. Yet what the researchers knew is that their brain needed that reward. The basal ganglia needed some reward. But what they found was that people who ate a small piece of chocolate after coming home from a run or a workout, they were much more likely to start exercising habitually.
So, whether you want to break a habit, or start a new habit, the key is to divide the habit into its component parts: queue, routine and reward, and design it for the result that you want.