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It’s winter, hibernation time, and so you naturally get pulled towards the couch, hot dinners and taking it easy. Yet the more you indulge, the less you feel good about yourself. Each time you attempt a new habit and you fail, the couch becomes more appealing. Before long you are feeling flat, unmotivated and your inner critic is taking over. Let’s look at how you can change this negative cycle.

Charles Duhigg, in his book ‘How to Change a Habit‘, explains the three-step loop. First there is a cue that tells your brain which habit to use, then there is the physical, mental or emotional routine and finally, there is the reward that keeps us doing the routine and this then loops around and re- influences the cue. This three-step loop is hard wired into our brains. Understanding it and using it can help us establish new habits.


Credit: The Power of Habit. Charles Duhigg.

 The practicalities of changing bad habits

If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to entice yourself to do a new routine that will get the same reward or a better one. Let’s say you commit to getting up earlier in the morning, however instead of getting up, you keep turning the alarm off and going back to sleep. The cue to do the new habit is the alarm and the rewards are feeling more awake and prepared for the day. In order to change a routine you need to consider the current one you have and tweak it. Some planning is needed to get out of the old routine and into the new one.

Let’s return to the getting up earlier example;

1. The new routine would be to set your alarm and place it away from you so you must get out of bed to turn it off.

2. You decide you need to go to bed an hour earlier to get enough sleep to make the change happen.

Warm toasty bed, cold winter night …not so bad eh? So the tweaks we have made to the old routine are keep the same cue but move the clock and go to bed earlier. The result of the change to the old routine is (getting up earlier) that replaces the negative routine (sleeping in) is getting the reward (enough rest, but getting more done).

Clever plans to KEEP your new habit

Gregory Ciott explains If-Then planning which suggests the tactic of creating a strong linkage between a specific situation and a follow up action. For example, a specific situation could be arriving home from work, and the follow up action is hanging your keys on the hook near the front door. Ciott discusses how studies have found that the most effective triggers come in “chains.” Chains are just adding a new step into an existing routine. In other words, following up on an already existing habit (key in the front door) with a new ‘link in the chain’ (key on hook once in the door) is a great way to get a habit started.

Even better instead of “I will eat healthier at lunch time, I will aim for two salads for lunch per week.” The more specific the new link in the chain, the easier to measure results.

Some published examples from Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, show good results from the use of ‘if-then planning’ and how it ties into the brain’s need for sequential routine activities. The automatic processing done by the brain, like driving a car without even thinking about it, becomes easier with an established trigger and routine chain.

“A recent review of results from 94 studies … found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal … including monthly breast self-examination, test prep, buying organic foods, being more helpful to others, losing weight, recycling etc.” Gregory Ciott

Over time, practicing these “ if…. I turn off the car, then… I take a deep slow breath to centre myself before getting out…” can cause them to become automatic, which is great for building habits.

How to keep going when stress comes along?

The final clue to stop sliding back to your old ways is described by Jocelyn Glei, editor of 99U.com. She says habits only stick if you believe change is possible. So how do you hang on to your hope on a day of despair? Easy, get support from others! Belief in changing ourselves can be enhanced by the power of other people, who create accountability and support.

Dr Sue Johnson in her book “Hold Me Tight” says:

“ Science from all fields is telling us very clearly we are social animals….Having close ties with others is vital to every aspect of health – mental, emotional and physical.’’

So if you want to write more, consider joining a writers’ group. If you want to eat more healthily, join an online support forum. If you want to run more, consider getting a friend to start a running routine with you. The more support and positive reinforcement around you, the easier it will be to shift entrenched bad habits to new ones that bring a positive routine with a satisfying reward.

Getting the most out of rewards

Charles Duhigg says when you’re trying to get a new routine embedded in your life, try to dwell on the reward. For example, with exercising think about the endorphin rush you’ll feel and anticipate it. Eventually that reward will make it easier to get out and exercise. The key is to make sure the reward really is something you want. As the following infographic depicts, the most important question to ask yourself is do I crave that reward when I think of that cue? If not, go back and work out a better reward.