Our first article in this 2-part series on habits focused on leveraging the power of habits to achieve New Year’s resolutions. In this article, we break down the components of a habit and give four strategies to help you overcome possible challenges.
Components of a Habit
A habit is an automatic behavior that initially requires conscious effort. It consists of 3 components: a cue, a routine, and a reward, which together form a habit loop.
The cue is whatever triggers the behavior. It could be a place, time, something you see or hear, or even an emotional state. A ringing cell phone is an obvious cue, while feelings of stress or anger may trigger behaviors of which you’re less aware. Because cues initiate the habit loop, it’s critical to become aware of the cues that drive your behavior.
The routine is the behavior that has become second-nature. Because roughly 40% of daily activity is routine (Duke University), it’s important to make sure routines are effective and goal-oriented to the degree possible. If you’re mindful and purposeful in creating routines, habits become powerful tools to help us achieve goals. Because it is much easier to change routines than cues and rewards, changing routines provides the greatest opportunity to change habits.
The third component is the reward. The reward satisfies a craving or need, so your brain quickly learns to repeat routines that generate rewards. Your brain links the cue to the reward so closely that you’ll begin to anticipate the reward as soon as the cue occurs. The routine then becomes a habit. Some rewards are easier to identify than others. Does walking to the vending machine midafternoon satisfy a craving for the energy the walk provides, the socializing you get chatting with others doing the same thing, a mental break, or something else? It is difficult to change a habit when you haven’t identified the reward.
Imagine your resolution is to read career-building material for 30 minutes every morning before work. Interference from old habits can be one of the biggest hurdles to developing a new habit. For example, you may need to replace an existing routine (watching TV or browsing the internet) to make time for the new habit. Next, create a cue that indicates it’s time to read, such as leaving a book on the table where you enjoy your first cup of coffee. Seeing the book triggers the routine of reading for 30 minutes. You will then enjoy the reward. In this case, it could be desire for growth.
Four Strategies For Developing Successful Habits
As anyone who has ever set a New Year’s resolution knows, forming new habits can be challenging. Here are 4 tips that will help you develop new habits and increase the likelihood of success.
Change an old habit
It is far easier to change an old habit than to create a new one because you keep the same cue and get the same reward. The only change you need to make is to create a more productive routine. A simple example would be switching coffee for tea. You still get a hot drink at the same time, place and way as before. You can also still fulfill a craving for an energy boost. It’s just one small change. Contrast that with the effort adding a new habit of exercising every morning would take. Both are possible, but the small change is more likely to turn into a habit.
Identify your kryptonite
Most new habits meet resistance or roadblocks. For example, you may want to develop a habit of informally connecting with team members each day at lunch. If you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from your computer, it may help to put your lunch in the break room instead of at your desk to give yourself the extra push. To identify your kryptonite, reflect and write down your successes and struggles during your first few days of your new habit.
Make initial rewards enticing
Researchers in Germany found that when people were forming the habit of running, they were more successful when they rewarded themselves with a piece of chocolate after each run for the first 2 weeks. After that time, most stopped eating chocolate because they experienced stronger rewards from the endorphins released from running. Making a clear, positive association is the key. To kick start your habit, find a reward that will entice you to take action.
Repeat the routine
Many resolutions involve goals of personal improvement. Getting up 30 minutes earlier to exercise may seem excruciating initially, but every time you repeat the routine it becomes easier. The more frequently and consistently you do it, the faster it will become a habit.
Understanding the 3 components of habits and how habit loops drive behavior is a powerful first step to making habits work for you. By this time of year, roughly 80% of resolutions have already failed. Our challenge to you is to recommit to your resolutions and to develop habits that drive results.
Habits are so pervasive and powerful that we must become aware of this process. Self-awareness is a consistent theme in understanding habits. To increase your self-awareness and learn more about managing the emotions that can derail habits, join us in an upcoming session of Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence. See our Public Workshops page for dates.