How to Change a Strong Habit Loop

Habit-LoopSo much of what we do is simply habit and routine that we selected because it was beneficial to us at one time. When it comes time to change a habit, we find out how powerful it has become. A well-used routine seems to have muscles, reinforced into a strong habit loop. How do habits become so strong?

The process is a three-step bio-chemical, psychological loop:

  1. A trigger event or cue occurs.
  2. There’s an automatic response (physical, mental and emotional).
  3. A reward such as dopamine provides pleasure and helps the brain decide that this loop is well-worth remembering.

Over time, the habit loop becomes increasingly automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation emerges.

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings form so gradually that we’re not even aware they exist. We’re often blind to their influence. We may think we make willful, conscious decisions, but 45 percent of the time we’re operating under the influence of unconscious reactions.

Habits Are Neural Connections

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the brain’s structures—a huge advantage because we don’t have to relearn things we haven’t done in a while, such as riding a bike, speaking a foreign language or driving to work.

But your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. Even after you’ve conquered a bad habit, it’s always lurking in the back of your mind. One cigarette can reignite a smoking habit after years of abstinence.

This is why it’s so hard to create new routines. Unless you deliberately fight an old habit by substituting a new routine, the pattern will unfold automatically. When you learn how the habit loop works, you’ll find it easier to take control of your behaviors.

Habits aren’t destiny. They can be ignored, changed or replaced. When we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower old drives and behaviors (thereby taking control of the habit loop), we can force our bad habits into the background.

Cue => Routine => Reward

A cue triggers both a routine and a reward (i.e., a rush of endorphins, for example, from a sense of accomplishment from engaging in a positive habit).

If, for example, you’re tired or bored, you may habitually eat a snack. If you want to avoid the calories and improve your overall health, you can choose to exercise instead. Both solutions relieve boredom and chemically reward the brain, but one is the smarter option.

To change a habit, identify the underlying craving; then, reward the brain with a more healthful behavior.

The Golden Rule for Changing Habits

You cannot extinguish a bad habit; you must learn to modify it. Here’s the formula for change:

  1. Use the same cue.
  2. Identify the physiological or emotional reward and figure out an alternative behavior that provides the same feeling.
  3. Change the routine.

Some researchers have found that desire and belief can help transform a consciously modified habit loop into a permanent behavior. In other words, you must want to change and believe you can do it.

Your degree of desire will influence the amount of persistence and discipline you apply. Practice is critical. Some people must stick to their new routine for at least a month—perhaps even 3 months—to create a new habit. (This means it may take longer than the so-called magical 21 day myth so widely accepted!) Studies show that it takes an average of 66 days with a range of 18–254 days.

Insist, persist, and resist the status quo response.

Which habit do you want to change this week? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

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