Learn to Break the “Habit Loop” and Replace Bad Habits With Good Ones
Breaking the Habit
Back in 2013, I came back to the U.S. after living in China for four years. My weight upon returning was 155 pounds. Amazingly, in less than two years, I had gained 25 pounds.
I thought I was eating the same amount as always, but obviously something was different.
It wasn’t a matter of lack of exercise, since there are two activities I consistently do; I play tennis at least four times per week, and I train at a local boxing club often.
In fact these are two activities which I have been doing since I was 15 years of age.
So what the heck happened?
Most likely, I surmised, it is the change of food from fewer processed foods, and substantially lower sugar content, to our high processed, high sugar content food engineered to get Americans to eat more. Notice, I am not mentioning fast food, since in Beijing there are plenty fast food restaurants, with which I indulged quite regularly. Certainly, no less than I did here in the U.S.
But to be honest, there was another change in my daily routine that happened rather unwittingly which was also a big culprit; I picked up the habit of snacking before bedtime.
My apartment in Beijing was not conducive to a snacking lifestyle. The kitchen was small, with a small pantry and a small refrigerator. Consequently, I normally either cooked small meals or ate out. That was not the case here in the U.S., where food is abundant and ubiquitous. My situation here is the direct opposite as China; a big kitchen, a big pantry and lots of sweets and other yummy foods all around.
Fortunately, after I had come to terms with the fact that the party was over, and I needed to take some action, I was able to identify these two areas that needed change.
Quite frankly, the part of choosing a diet was easy. The reason is that in the final analysis, all diets are pretty good. Everything I have read, seems to indicate that the difference between the Atkins, Vegan, Paleo or whatever other weight-loss plan humans are able to concoct, perform quite well. Of course as long as the adherent sticks to the diet.
The real problem, seemed to be this little habit I had picked up along the way to snack a few hours after I had eaten dinner.
Since my approach to solving problems has always been to explicitly define the problem, do research for possible solutions, choose one, put together a plan, and forge ahead, I began in earnest to follow this model.
After I had decided to just do a simple, natural diet of protein, vegetables, salads, and fruit, which excluded all bread, pasta, sugar, and extremely processed foods, I began to look for a solution to the habit of snacking.
Fortunately I came across a substantial number of articles about Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. In it he describes how all habits, whether good or bad, form by going through the same cycle or “habit loop”.
For a PDF summary of The Power of Habit, go here: http://www.kimhartman.se/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/The-Power-of-Habit-Summary.pdf
A quick overview of the habit loop is as follows:
- The Cue or Trigger: This tells your brain to go into an automatic behavior.
- The Action or the Routine: This is when the behavior actually takes place.
- The Reward: This is something the brain likes that reinforces the habit loop.
As per Duhigg, our habit-making behaviors are created by the basal ganglia of your brain. This is the area in which emotions, memories and pattern recognition are created. However, as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of the brain, goes into sleep mode. This, he says is done so that your brain will have extra mental capacity to devote to other tasks.
This extra capacity means you can do complex behaviors “without being mentally aware.” Actions like driving, parallel parking, performing certain sport movements and many more. If you are a tennis or golf player, you might have heard the term muscle memory, which in reality is nothing more than habits that have been formed over a period of time involving a great deal of repetition.
The understanding of this process or cycle is important since it allows us to intervene in changing the cue/trigger or the reward. Once one of these two components of the habit loop are either changed or eliminated, our chances of breaking a bad habit (the action or routine), or swapping it out for a good one are greatly increased.
The Eureka! Moment
So, EUREKA, I had my solution to breaking the snacking-at-night habit and created a plan.
My plan was:
- Follow the diet. Piece of cake (pardon the pun) since I had learned how to make weight back when I used to occasionally get in the ring, this was easy. Discipline is the key.
- Change the reward. I did this by swapping a bowl of ice cream, or a cookie, or a banana, for a tall cup of decaffeinated coffee, with plenty of sugar-free creamer and two envelopes of sugar substitute. The cup of decaf gives me the oral satisfaction I crave, plus a feeling of fullness.
For the purpose of the two or three people, who will read my post here in Medium, I have put together some information on changing the cue/trigger, and the reward, plus two sets of hypothetical sequences, that will hopefully shed some light on how the habit loop works and how it can be broken.
Changing the Cue — Eliminate the Triggers
It is also important to identify the cue itself before you can change it or eliminate it. You can do this by keeping a journal in which you write down what triggered your action. After you do this several times you should be able to have a better understanding of what drives you to your routine.
While the following examples might not be representative of your individual problems, the important thing is to understand the model for breaking or changing the cue.
- (Cue) Drink coffee in the morning — (Routine) Smoke a cigarette — (Reward) The combination of caffeine and nicotine make you both alert and relaxed. Solutions: Switch to decaf or tea. Stop drinking coffee altogether.
- (Cue) Procrastinate in writing a report causes stress when deadline arrives — (Routine) Take out a box of cookies from the pantry, and eat half a box. — (Reward) The extra infusion of sugar gives you a temporary high and it relieves the stress. Solution: Start your project the day before. Don’t wait to the last minute.
- (Cue) Take diabetic medication — (Routine) License to overeat. Eat carbs. (Reward) Eating feels good. Solution: If possible change the time you take medication. Go for a walk right after taking your medication. Plan a healthy meal right after the medication. Immediately after taking your medication, think about M.D.E. — medicine — diet — exercise.
“The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you don’t, life controls you.” Anthony Robbins
Changing the Reward
This strategy is about attacking a bad behavior from the opposite end of the habit loop. By eliminating or changing the reward that entices you to a routine, you can change your pattern of behavior.
As in the case of changing the cue, it is important to identify the reward that drives your behavior. The best way to do this is to experiment with different rewards and to keep a journal or notes of your reaction. Through trial and error you should be able to determine your true reward, which you can then begin to create a plan to eliminate it or change it. The idea is to look for recurring patterns.
But also keep in mind that creating a reward is also a good way to create a good habit.
Below you will see three examples, that will change your behavioral pattern in a positive way.
Although these are seemingly simple examples, the idea is for you to understand the model of reward as a driver of behavior.
- (Cue) — Get stressed at the office. (Routine) — At break time go to the cafeteria. (Reward) — Eat a muffin. Solutions: Eat an apple instead. Sit with a colleague for a quick chat and drink a diet soda.
- (Cue) — Sitting around with nothing to do. Being bored. (Routine) — Bite your nails. (Reward) — Feeling of accomplishment, completeness and stimulation. Solution: Create a competing response, such as writing down what triggers the nail-biting. Since changing the routine will also eliminate the reward, putting your hands in your pocket during idle times could also be effective.
- (Cue) — Set the alarm clock in the morning for a half hour earlier than normal. (Routine) — Go to the gym to work out. (Reward) — Treat yourself to a smoothie after your gym visit.
“We improve ourselves by victories over ourselves. There must be contest, and we must win.” Edward Gibbon
The following are some suggestions and ideas regarding breaking habits that could be helpful.
- Don’t fall for the myth that starting from scratch is a good idea. Experts recommend that you evolve your behavior. One reason is that innovation is mostly making new combinations of old ideas. Another reason is that sometimes improvements only require a little tweaking to what already exists.
- Don’t focus on the final result. Focus on the process. If you stick to the process, positive outcomes will happen.
- Ask yourself questions such as why, what, how. Why are you snacking between meals? Why are you not exercising? How do you justify smoking? What change of the cue, trigger, routine, or reward is needed to make changes in your behavior?
- Reflect on the logic behind your actions. Sometimes our logic is faulty. If it is, it is good to identify that flaw and look for ways to correct it.
- Make a specific plan. Write down place, date, time and course of action of what you want to do. Psychologists call these “implementation intentions.” These intentions allow for actions to begin. Remember the adage: If you fail to plan, you are planing to fail.
- Read, research, inform yourself. There are many habit hackers on the internet and books they have written that you can read. Besides Charles Duhigg, I recommend you also search for James Clear, who has also written extensively on the subject. This is his website: https://jamesclear.com/
- Focus on one goal at a time. Single goals are hard enough.
- Success often requires a lot of failures. Don’t be afraid to fail. Another adage for you: If at first you don’t succeed; try and try again.
By the way, so far I have lost 17 pounds. Eight more pounds to go!!!