Reprogramming Your Habits
Creating new habits works much the same way for us as
it did for the rats in the MIT experiment—we develop new cues,
routines, and rewards. But changing existing habits is different.
That’s important to understand because the challenge when it comes to
staying healthy is often to overcome bad habits that have existed for
The key to changing habits is to keep the same cues
and rewards while replacing the routine with something new. The best
example of this is smoking cessation. Smoking is much more than a
habit—it’s a chemical addiction. But the habits that surround cigarette
smokers make overcoming the dependence on nicotine even harder.
Routines like smoke breaks, lighting up, and even buying cigarettes all
have to be changed for a smoker to quit.
The key to changing habits is to keep the same cues and rewards while replacing the routine with something new.
Despite how hard it is to quit, smoking rates have plummeted in the United States in the last decade.
One reason for the sharp decline is that we better understand how cues
trigger smoking habits. That’s why the American Cancer Society
recommends replacing smoking with tea, coffee, exercise, or something
that gives you the same reward.
For Chad, having the same reward is exactly the
reason his new habits started to stick. He felt good after eating a
healthy meal in the same way he used to feel good after eating an
unhealthy meal. In fact, the unhealthy meals started to make Chad feel
bad. “I do a cheat day or binge day every Saturday,” Chad says. “It
makes me sick every time and I look forward to it less and less.”
The rewards of being healthy come in many different
forms. You may get extra energy, be able to concentrate longer, reduce
pain, or just do your job better.
Change one habit
Pick a simple habit of yours and change it.
A good example might be walking to the vending machine at work to buy a
candy bar every afternoon. If you want to change a habit like this,
you’ll need to do three things:
- Identify the Cue
Sometimes cues are obvious. Your morning routine is
probably cued by an alarm clock. The habit of putting on your seat belt
is cued by sound of starting a car. Other cues are subtle. However,
they all fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotion,
social setting, or action. To identify your cue, try answering each of
the following questions as soon as you feel the urge to indulge your
After a few times, you’ll probably see a pattern. Is
it always the same time of day? Are you with the same people? Are you
always bored when the urge strikes?
- Identify the Reward
The reward for a habit like buying a candy bar may
seem obvious, but it’s not always what you think. The reward could be
the walk to the vending machine. Getting your blood flowing can reward
your brain just as much as candy. The reward could also be social.
Maybe there is a group of people you like to talk to near the vending
machine. The best way to identify a habit’s reward is to experiment.
Try going for a walk without going to the vending machine. Trying
socializing without buying the candy. You may find that you get the
- Plan Your New Routine
Once you’ve identified the cue and the reward, you’ll
need a new routine. The best way to make sure you follow up on that
routine is to write it down. It can even look like something out of
I will ROUTINE
In order to get REWARD
Put this on a sticky note and keep it near
your desk as a constant reminder. Eventually, the new routine will
become a habit.