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 years.

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 habit:

  • Where are you?

  • What time is it?

  • How are you feeling?

  • Who is with you?

  • What action preceded the urge?

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 same reward.

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 behavior-driven development:

When CUE
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.

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