What Are Habits?
Habits are profoundly misunderstood; therefore, they are usually dealt with inadequately. This is why habits are seemingly impossible to break. Have you ever tried to stop a bad habit but failed? You’ve probably tried to stop the same bad habit numerous times but never successfully. If so, don’t get discouraged; this is common and only caused by a lack of understanding of what habits really are.
Habits are behaviors that have become automatic with little to no conscious thought. These subconscious patterns emerge from learning and repetition. The brain recognizes patterns and creates efficient paths for replicating them. This is incredibly valuable in many scenarios, such as tying your shoe, driving a car, walking, etc. In each of these activities, your conscious mind plays little to no part in it. This is because your brain recognizes the pattern, and your subconscious takes control and completes the action with minimal effort. This allows you to complete tasks without wasting mental energy thinking through how to complete familiar challenges.
However, the unconscious mind cannot distinguish between good and bad. This is where the conscious mind conflicts with the subconscious mind. Your conscience will tell you that you are doing something wrong or will make you feel a sense of guilt after a bad action has been done. Although you may be aware of these bad habits, that doesn’t mean you can stop them. Once the brain has discovered a pattern and created a habit, willpower alone rarely has any effect. To defeat a bad habit, you must understand the habit loop and alter it rather than try to eliminate it.
What Is the Habit Loop?
The habit loop is a framework that is used to understand habits better. This loop contains three distinct parts, cue, routine, and reward. It is essential to understand the three parts of your specific loop to change your bad habit.
The cue in a habit loop is what triggers you to take action. Sometimes these cues can be difficult to discover because they may not be directly related to the action. For example, excessive eating may have little to do with hunger; rather, the cue is stress. Therefore, take a reasonable amount of time to examine what is really triggering your actions. Normally the cue of a habit is unavoidable, but it is essential to recognize it regardless.
Example cue: You feel a nasty film on your teeth.
The routine is the action that is taken after the cue. The subconscious mind typically completes this action without your conscious input. The routine of a bad habit is normally easy to recognize because it is the action you are trying to get rid of or what you feel guilty about doing. The routine can be avoided by strategic routine replacement.
Example routine: You brush your teeth, typically in the same pattern, without thinking.
The reward of a habit loop is the satisfying stimulus that you were craving. This stimulus normally decreases negative emotions or increases positive emotions. However, this reward can be brief and produce immense long-term damages, such as smoking. The desire for the reward is difficult to avoid but, once discovered, gives great insight into what is truly the problem.
Example reward: A sensation of cleanliness, freshness, and the tingling feeling from the toothpaste.
How Do We Change a Bad Habit?
Now that we understand how to recognize the different aspects of the habit loop, we can effectively change bad habits. To change a bad habit, we must strategically substitute the bad routine with a healthy alternative. After recognizing the cue that triggers the bad habit, we can consciously choose the alternative routine. The key is to ensure that the new routine results in the same reward. This will become the new unconscious habit loop with practice and repetition, and the bad habit will successfully be overcome.
Example Bad Habit: Work makes you feel stressed (cue), so you smoke a cigarette after getting off work (routine). This makes you feel more relaxed and calm (reward).
Example Habit Change: Work makes you feel stressed (cue), so you go to the gym after getting off work (routine). This makes you feel more relaxed and calm (reward).