Our lives consist of a series of habits that we perform daily without thinking about them–hence the name habit. We become habituated to our daily way of being in the world, and these habits grow more and more ingrained each time we perform them.
Actions become habits along with the thoughts and emotional patterns that go with them and they work to strengthen each other. Bad habits lock us into negative and destructive patterns of behavior while good habits help us to get organized by creating order and efficiency in our lives.
Even though many of our daily choices may seem like well thought out conscious decisions–they are really unconscious habits.
The Power of Habit
When we focus on creating positive habits in place of negative one’s we can literally change our lives. The old negative set of neurological patterns will be overridden by new positive ones.
Neurons that fire together wire together and become stronger and stronger over time. The old pathways will still be there, but they will weaken over time becoming less and less readily triggered. This change can be hard-won depending on how deeply ingrained the habit is, but behavior modification is always possible.
The difference between the person that you are today and the person you want to be is a product of your habits. Understanding how habits are formed is the first step toward both creating new positive habits and replacing negative habits with positive ones.
How Habits Form
Many scientists believe that habits emerged to help the brain conserve energy while executing mundane tasks and basic behaviors. There is something that occurs whenever a behavior, or chunk of behaviors–a routine–starts or ends lets the brain know when to allow habits to take over and conserve mental power.
The brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a task looking for a clue about which pattern, or habit, it can use. Once triggered these habits, or routines, are set in motion until complete when a reward appears. The brain then comes back online once the habit is complete.
The Habit Loop
Habits consist of a Cue, a behavior or routine, and a reward. Duhig explains the three step process known as the habit loop in *The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally there is a reward which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop–cue, routine, reward: cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually… A habit is born. (Kindle Loc 427)
What’s important to note is that the cue and the reward need to be linked in order to create the neurological cravings that power the habit loop. Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we don’t even notice they exist, or the subconscious power they have over our daily habits.
Replacing Negative Habits with Positive Habits
Once understood this habit loop can be used to create new habits or replace old ones. Because we often don’t notice these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.
There are things we can do to help us ignore the temptations, but in order to change a habit we must first recognize which craving is driving the behavior. Becoming mindful of our own personal habits is thus the next step toward the creation of positive habits. When we learn to observe the cues and rewards present in our own habits we can begin to change the negative routines in favor of positive ones.
When someone creates a habit out of having a drink every day after work by going to the fridge to grab a beer when they arrive home, this habit will create the thought patterns, emotions and cravings that surround the physical action of having a drink. When it begins it may just be a physical action performed out of boredom, but soon the person will eventually feel compelled to have this drink every day after work. It will no longer be optional. This is how addictions form.
The brain will become addicted to the habit regardless of its repercussions. Addictive substances, of course, have a lot of added influence due to their addictive nature. They cause an even stronger craving and deliver and even stronger reward than other habits and this works to further strengthen the habit loop.
Creating Positive Habits
New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward to create a new habit loop.
- First, come up with a simple and obvious cue such as when you get up in the morning, after you brush your teeth, when an alarm you set daily goes off, when you return home from work, etc.
- Next, Come up with a clearly defined reward–this works best when the reward makes sense for the habit you are trying to instill.
If you are wanting to walk every day in order to lose weight, eating a cookie after you walk as your reward probably wouldn’t be the best choice. A better choice might be a cup of coffee, or a new outfit after you’ve been walking every day for a month to show off your improved figure. Whatever you choose, you must allow yourself to anticipate the reward for a new habit to form.
Other rewards might be chatting on the phone with a friend, 30 minutes of free time to work on a favorite hobby, the time to watch a favorite show, or any thing else that you consider to be a treat that would work for you. Rewards can be given after completing the new habit daily, or after completing the habit for a specified amount of time or number of days. The only thing that matters is that it must work for you.
Another technique that really works as a reward, or used in addition to a reward, is to check it off every day that you complete it. There is nothing more motivating that seeing another red check mark right where you want it to be to feel good about your commitment to yourself.
When you miss a day the lack of seeing the red check mark can also be motivating to get you back on track. You can use your calendar or planner, or put a sheet on your fridge to track your progress. [Free Habit Tracking Printable]
Once this new loop is in place a craving must be cultivated to power the loop or it will not have any staying power or ability to overpower old patterns and their habits. Studies have shown that a cue and reward aren’t enough–your brain must begin to expect or crave the reward.
A habit will become automatic only when the cue triggers both a routine and a craving for the reward to come–this is why addictive substances create such strong habits. Having a craving is what makes cues and rewards work by powering the habit loop.
The craving links the cue and the reward together by creating an overwhelming sense of anticipation or craving for the reward–once cued the behavior or routine will be completed in anticipation of the reward. Craving the reward is thus an essential part of the formula for creating new habits.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
You can not get rid of a negative habit, but you can change it. In order to change a habit you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, while changing the behavior or routine.
Duhig explains, “That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.” (Kindle Loc 1053)
In the case of the person who has the habit of going to the fridge to get a beer every day they come home from work we will assume that their reward was the relief of letting the day go. In order to change this habit this person could instead put on a pair of running shoes and head out the door every day after work. I don’t know about you, but I find there is nothing like a nice walk or a quick run to help me shake off the day.
The 3-21-28 Rule of Habit Creation
When I was in graduate school studying psychology I learned that research at the time had proven that habits become established after 21 days of repeating them. Later, I came up with my 3-21-28 rule of habit creation.
This rule helped me to see the forest through the trees when I was struggling to create positive habits in my life. I noticed that after about 3 days the habit was beginning to set. In other words, I found it much easier to complete the next day once 3 days of doing so had passed. The habit was nowhere near automatic, but it was no longer a struggle.
After 21 days the habit would become firmly established in my daily repertoire, and at 28 days I could forget it–it had become automatic.
3–set it, 21–establish it, 28–forget it.
Research today is showing that there can be lots of variation between individuals with regards to habit formation depending on all the parameters involved, but I still have a lot of confidence in my 3-21-28 rule.
Completing day three has now become its own reward that I crave–which makes creating new habits easier and easier for me. I’ve proven to myself that if I can do 3 days, I can do 28. And if I can do 28, I will become a habit for as long as I want it to be. Once I complete 3 days I start to believe–and for me belief is 99% of the journey.
The final Rule of Habit Formation
Go easy on yourself. Only choose one habit at a time to add, change, or modify in whatever way you want to. Don’t add or try to change another habit until the first is automatic or you may become overwhelmed and give up.
Creating new positive habits takes time, effort, and a whole lot of grace–take it easy and do your best to stay positive. This struggle will pass and before you know it, 28 days will have passed and you can now think about adding in something else. Congratulations, your well on your way to reaching your highest potential–one baby step at a time.
Next Articles in this series:
- 10 Reasons To Make Rhythm A Habit [Care for your children, manage your household, and get things done!]
- Free Habit Tracking Printable [A tracking sheet to help you track and establish habits]
Other Articles that may be of interest:
- New Years Resolution Goal #1: Getting Organized For Good
- The Importance of Rhythm
- Establishing A Daily Rhythm
These are Amazon affiliate links to the books I referenced to write this article. I earn a small commission at no cost to you–thank you for your support.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhig