Ready to change your habits right now, but can’t figure out the secret formula?
The good news is that it’s not a secret. MIT researchers have discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. The loop consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward. (In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg calls this the Habit Cycle.)
The other good news is that you’ll likely need to update your mindset to apply it.
Change Your Mindset
If you’re like me, you’ve been programmed to approach habits in a certain way. We’ll call it “Habits 1.0.” You’ve been trained to think of habits as something that requires a lot of willpower to change. It’s been ingrained in you to expect it to be very difficult, and that you’ll simply need to force yourself to be different. You probably learned it in elementary school or from your parents.
Here’s the best part. There’s an exponentially more effective way to change your behavior. If you apply the Habit Cycle, or as I like to call it “Habits 2.0,” you’ll find it much easier to make adjustments in your daily life.
Instead of using motivation to prompt behavior, you can use outside forces to cue you. Instead of trying to motivate yourself to do something, you can use a trigger to do it automatically. That way, the action doesn’t depend on how you’re feeling or your current level of discipline. The habit becomes a simple reaction to stimuli. It becomes your new default.
Let’s get ready to practice.
First, pick one thing to focus on. We probably have several of areas where we want to improve. You can get to them all – one at a time. For now, pick the one that seems the most important (or that seems the easiest).
Next, think tiny. We want to narrow it down to a tiny action that seems so trivial, that it’s almost too easy. For example, when I started my flossing habit years ago, I started with flossing just one tooth. (Yes, one tooth! Wired even wrote a story about it.) This is a big deal because it reduces the resistance significantly. You don’t have to dig deep down to find the strength or willpower. There’s no excuse why we can’t do it.
Do you have your daily goal in mind? (If you’re not sure, let’s choose walking every day for 10 minutes as an example.)
Now, for the habit changing formula. The key is to focus first on building momentum. It much easier to grow the habit once we have it rolling.
Step 1: Find your trigger.
The technique here is to use something you already to naturally as a prompt to start your new behavior. For our walking example, how about picking the trigger of getting home from work. We do that everyday without any motivation needed. To reinforce the trigger, you can even place your walking shoes right where you’ll see them when you set your keys down. Seeing the shoes is your trigger. It’s the right time, the right place. You’re ready to go.
Step 2: Practice the routine.
Consistency and repetition are key. As you get home and walk each day, it will become easier and easier. Even if you’re in a hurry and take a very short walk, you’ll reinforce the habit. Every day, practice the routine. Get home, see the shoes, go for a walk – even if it’s around your house because the weather is terrible.
Step 3: Enjoy the reward.
Reconnect with why you wanted to do the habit. Notice your body enjoying the fresh air and the time to decompress from a busy day. Savor the pride that grows with each successful day. Mark an X on the calendar (or check-in on coach.me) to see your streak growing.
Step 4: Keep moving forward.
As you daily walk feels more natural, think about how we can continue making positive changes. Perhaps you want to walk longer distances, or perhaps you want to return home and cook a healthy dinner. Most habits take at least a week to set in, so plan to make changes at that pace.
Think of it like a snowball. Once we get our good habits rolling, they’ll automatically grow from there and carry us wherever we want to go. We just pack in a little snow every day, and with each rotation we get stronger and more powerful.