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Every habit, conscious or unconscious, has a trigger, an action and a reward. By understanding the reward you crave, your personal reward system, you can build new sustainable habits, as well as changing habits that are not taking you closer to your goals.
The Habit Loop
Habit Cue or Trigger
The habit loop is a way to describe how habits work. It starts with a trigger, something that makes you do the habit. This can be a time of day, like always having lunch at noon. Or it can be connected to another action, like taking a shower first thing after getting out of bed.
This is what we actually do. The action. The shower, the brushing of teeth, the cereal we have for breakfast.
The reward is the satisfaction we get from performing the action. This reward can come in many different forms. It can be an immediate reward, like endorphins after a run, a sugar rush from our cereal, or a dopamine hit when we check our phone and there are new notifications popping up.
It can be a more subtle reward, like feeling good after a shower or content after a satisfying meal.
Or it can be the absence of discomfort, like how we feel if we don’t brush our teeth.
It can sometimes be very difficult to identify the reward we get from a habit, especially a very ingrained and almost unconscious habit. However, by understanding the reward we crave, we can become mindful about if the reward serves us (feeling clean, satisfyingly full) or not (sugar rush, dopamine hit).
We can also consider if the action serves our overall goals, and if not, find another action to achieve the same reward.
The reward is why we make the habit over and over again. It’s how our brain learns that this is a good action to repeat again and again when the trigger comes.
Read More: IDC theory: habit and the habit loop
Understanding the Personal Reward System
In the book The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, Charles shares a great story about how he went about understanding the rewards that comes which a specifical habit. He then set out to find another action that gave him the same reward, that was in line with his overall goals and values.
NO MORE COOKIES
Charles had got into the routine of going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. This had caused him to gain some weight (8 pounds to be exact), and as he didn’t want the extra weight he tried to stop.
He but a post-it on his computer to remind him “NO MORE COOKIES”.
But every afternoon he ignored it, went to the cafeteria, and bought a cookie while chatting with colleagues. At first it felt good, then it felt bad. Like he didn’t have enough willpower. Tomorrow however, tomorrow will be different.
Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.Waren Buffet
But off course, tomorrow is never different. Unless you take time to really analyse the habit loop.
Charles’ Habit Trigger
What is Charles’ trigger in this scenario?
Low blood sugar?
The need for a break?
The action is often quite clear. In this case it’s going to the cafeteria, eating a cookie, and chatting with colleagues.
Charles’ Habit Reward
What is the reward for Charles?
The change of scenery?
The temporary energy that comes from a sugar rush?
Experimenting with the Personal Reward System
Charles decided that instead of continuing his cycle of eating the cookie, gain weight, feel bad about himself and then do the same thing the next day, he would figure out the habit loop, and most importantly, which reward he was craving.
Every afternoon when he craved a cookie, he decided to try one of the following:
- Take a walk outside instead of going to the cafeteria.
- Go to the cafeteria and by a candy bar and eat it at his desk.
- Go to the cafeteria and buy an apple while chatting with this colleges.
- Then try a cup of coffee instead of an apple.
- Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, go to his colleges desk and chat for a few minutes.
The actions themselves are not so important, the important part is that Charles tested which reward satisfied his craving.
Was it the break from work, was he hungry, or did he just need a burst of energy that would be provided by the coffee instead of the cookie?
Once he got back to his desk, he set his alarm for 15 minutes to check – was he still craving to go to the cafeteria and have a cookie?
The Right Reward in Your Personal Reward System
For Charles, it turned out that it was the socialising that was the reward he was craving. When going over to his colleges desk for a chat, he no longer craved the trip to the cafeteria even though he hadn’t eaten anything.
He could now change his habit without willpower and without feeling deprived. He now got the same reward while behaving in a way that was in line with his values and long-term goals.
Aligning Your Habits with Your Goals and Values
With 95% of all our actions being unconsious, we need to be clear on our goals and valuse to be able to identify habits that no longer serve us. For Charles, the goal was to avoid weight gain. For you it may be something completely different.
Are you saving up for a house?
Wanting to succeed at work?
Training for a race?
Be clear on your long-term goals you can start looking at which of your current habits serve you, and what new habits would take you closer to your goals.
And by understanding your personal reward system, which rewards you crave, you can set up your habits so that they don’t require willpower long-term. They will instead become close to automatic and you will be free to focus on other things in life.
Understanding My Personal Reward System
The reward you crave will not be the same as Charles’. The rewards we crave are very personal and we need to understand what we need in each situation.
I often get the same “dip” in the afternoon as Charles did. I experimented with going for a coffee, having a snack, or popping over for someone’s desk for a chat. Nothing worked. I felt stuck.
It was only when I started working from home, I one day decided to go to my favourite chair in the living room and just close my eyes for a few minutes. Watch the birds out the window. Listen to the quiet.
It turned out what I craved was rest. I was tired and my mind needed a break, a pause, before continuing the day.
I’m not always going to be able to rest in my favourite chair in the afternoon. However, by understanding the craving and reward: I’m tired and need to rest, to give my mind a break, I can change the action to be appropriate wherever I am.
I can look out the window for a few minutes.
Put my headphones on and to a 5-minute guided meditation.
If nothing else, I can take a few deep breaths and let my mind quiet down.
I can practise the art of the pause.
What do you need?
Find Your Personal Reward
Do you have a habit you want to create, or change? What habit change would take you closer to your goal? And what is the reward that would make you “do the right thing” over and over again without willpower?
What craving do you need to satisfy?
Follow in Charles footsteps and experiment! Try things and see what works. And approach the experiment with curiosity. This is not about trying and failing. This is about getting to know yourself better. Learning about yourself, about what you need.
And finding a way to give yourself what you truly need, in a way that is in accordance with your goals and values.