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A Strategic Approach to Building and Breaking Habits (with Step-by-step Guide)

Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen
A mistake most people make when trying to build habits is that they only focus on doing or not doing the action itself. But for a habit to stick or break, it requires a strong habit cycle, not just a repeated action. Here is how one should actually build or break habits, using the fundamental trigger- action - reward.
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Habit Cycles: Breaking and Building Habits

Why is it that some people decide that they will start running every day, and the next time you speak to them they have run 100 miles in the past month. But when you decide to do the same, you only manage five, non-consecutive days?

Why is it that when some people decide to give up sugar for lent, by Easter they are telling you how amazing they feel. But when you decided to do the same, you were struck by sugar cravings so bad that you ended up eating more sugar?

Is there some secret to building and breaking habits? The short answer to that question is yes!

Many of us, when we try and build or break habits, focus on the action itself, the thing we want (or don’t want) to do. But habits are more than just action, they are a cycle that includes a trigger, an action, and a reward. And for a habit to stick, it requires all three elements.

Let’s take a look at the habit cycle and exactly how it works, and how we can use this knowledge to develop better strategies for both breaking and building habits.

What is a Habit?

We often talk about habits, the good, the bad, and the ugly, as if they are the same thing. And there is justification for that. 

By definition, a habit is a learned behavior that we repeat subconsciously, regardless of whether we would consider it to be positive or negative.

Habits are an important part of human adaptation, as they allow us to do some things automatically, preserving our higher mental process for more demanding tasks.

Imagine if you needed to consciously think about everything you did from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night? 

For example, you would not only have to choose to brush your teeth, but also choose when to brush your teeth, how much toothpaste to put on your brush, exactly how to move the brush in your mouth to the best possible effect, how long to brush for, and so forth.

Multiply that to every little thing that you do throughout the day, and that would be exhausting.

Subconscious habits help us live easier, how habits benefit our lives
Habits are subconscious to help us live an easier life | Illustration by Hisa Nishya/iStock

But while this useful adaptation helps us immensely, it can hurt us as well. When our brain forms habits, it does not take into account whether the habit that is being created is good for us or not. So just as you can develop good habits such as brushing your teeth every day, you can also develop bad habits, such as playing on your phone for an hour (or more) every night before bed.

So habits are a useful human adaptation that allows us to complete many daily activities subconsciously, freeing up our higher brain function for more complex tasks. But when we form habits, our brain does not distinguish between “good” and “bad”.  

How do Habits Work?

But while that is what a habit is, how exactly a habit works is more complex.

A definition that describes how a habit works is that it is contextual behavior that is directly triggered by something, usually time, location, people, emotional state, or prior action. It is this trigger that lets the subconscious know that now is the time to complete that action.

But when it comes to habit, more than knowing that now is the time to complete an action, the brain wants you to complete that action. Why? The brain has also grown to associate completing that action with some kind of reward. Therefore the bain is already anticipating that reward when it receives the trigger, the same way that just the smell of cookies can make your mouth water.

Therefore, a habit is more than just the repetitive action itself. It is context-driven behavior that is triggered by specific stimuli, and it is made into an impulsively desirable act, as past experience leads the brain to associate completing the action with receiving a reward.

Trigger - Action - Reward

If there is only one thing to remember about habits, it is this habit cycle: 

Habit loop, habit cycle, trigger action reward, routine, build habit with strategyi
The Fundamentals of Habit Building: Habit Cycle - A great illustration by Live like pros

In order to understand how the habit cycle of trigger, action, and reward actually works, let’s take a look at a real-world example.

Take someone who enjoys an afternoon coffee in the office on workdays. The trigger is probably the energy dip that we suffer after lunch if we haven’t chosen slow energy release foods, but also the time of day, and our location, the office. 

This is why we don’t necessarily have the same urge after lunch on a Saturday. These elements combine to make a very strong trigger for us to get up from our desk and make a coffee.

But that specific response was not automatic the first time that we were in that situation. It was probably one of several options that we had on the table. But for whatever reason, we went for the coffee. It is what happened next that made this our habitual response to that trigger.

When we make and drink the coffee, we are rewarded. We get a caffeine hit, but also other things, such as social interaction with whoever is near the coffee maker, and a break from sitting at our desk and concentrating on a task. 

As a result of these good feelings that we got from making and drinking the coffee the first few times, our subconscious decided that when we are next in the same situation, we should do the same thing.

Before we know it, at roughly the same time every day in the office, we feel the urge for a coffee.

It should be said that habits can form after just one or two repetitions, or it can take hundreds. It depends on the strength of the trigger and the desirability of the reward.

SEE ALSO: 7 Steps to Forming A New Habit with Habitify

Breaking and Building Habits

Since the 1960s psychologists have been talking about the importance of habit when it comes to how we act. It is thought that between 60 and 90 percent of what we do every day is habitual.

Therefore it is no wonder that self-improvers have embraced the power of habit to make positive changes in our lives. Breaking bad habits and building good ones can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to changing our behavior.

But if it is so simple to change our lives in this way, why isn’t everyone doing it?

Most strategies for building or breaking habits focus only on the action itself, and not the full habit cycle of trigger, action, and reward. We focus on doing the same thing repeatedly in order to make it habitual. But in order to move the action from a conscious decision to a subconscious response, we also need the trigger and the reward.

Failure in habit building, can't make habit stick, can't quit habit, how to quit bad habits, how to succeed
Focusing only on Action is the most common why habits fail | Image source

Let’s take a look at some strategies for building and breaking habits that focus on the full habit cycle, the trigger, the action, and the reward, and are therefore a recipe for success.

Strategies for Breaking Habits

There are two key things that you need to do in order to break a habit, as in stop completing a certain action subconsciously in specific circumstances.

(1) Move the decision to act from the subconscious brain to the conscious brain.
(2) Diminish your brain’s desire for the reward associated with the action that you are trying to stop.

Doing this requires three steps.

Step One: Identify Triggers and Rewards

The first step in this process is to identify what triggers the offending action, and what reward you are getting from it. This can be much more complicated than it sounds. 

The trigger can be incredibly subtle, such as a smell. It can be something that you can’t see, such as your digestion or hormones. It can also be a combination of things. As we saw with our coffee example, the trigger was probably a combination of the drop in blood sugar, the time of day, and the location.

If you cannot readily identify the trigger for the habit, it can be useful to keep a diary of everything that you do and everything that happens around the time that the habit takes hold. You can then analyze that diary to look for potential triggers.

You can use the same diary process to identify what reward you think you are receiving from completing the act, by writing down how you feel afterward. 

Rewards can be just as complex as triggers. Again, look at our coffee example. It probably isn’t just the chemical satisfaction of the caffeine - taking a pill with the equivalent level of caffeine is not going to pay off in the same way as the process or preparing and drinking the coffee.

Step Two: Make Acting Conscious Rather than Subconscious

Once you have identified the habit cycle, you are already on the way to breaking it. Simple awareness can actually help a lot. Depending on how deeply ingrained the habit is, just this can help move the urge to complete the action from the subconscious to the conscious mind. 

This doesn’t mean that you will still feel the urge to complete the action, because of the anticipation of the reward, but you will have a bit more awareness to make a decision. While it is still difficult, at least you have the option to choose otherwise.

Break bad habits, quit bad habits
It’s easier to Break Bad Habits Using Habit Cycle, not Will Power  | Image Source

At this point, a lot of people rely on willpower in order to not complete the offending action, and it is possible to overcome a habit with awareness and willpower. But you can make it easier on yourself by decreasing the desirability of the reward, giving yourself a similar reward, or a better reward.

Step Three: Change Your Reward System

In order to stop your brain urging you to complete the offending action, you need to give it the reward that it is expecting from the trigger. Or rather, you need to give it a recognizable reward to replace the reward that you are denying it by refusing to act habitually.

Looking at the coffee example again. We think that the reward probably is not just the caffeine, it is probably also the social interaction and the break from work. 

So on one day, you might schedule a meeting with a colleague that you like at “coffee time” in order to get that social reward. On another day, you can go for a walk in a nearby park, giving you that break from work reward, and also the additional reward that most humans feel when in nature. 

As you skip the coffee, your body’s chemical craving for a coffee will also reduce over time (caffeine withdrawal takes between two and nine days).

SEE ALSO: From An Alcoholic to The Superman Who Swims in 4 Celsius Water

But wait, can’t you just get rid of the trigger?

You have probably heard the advice that to break a habit, you should completely avoid a trigger. But there are two problems with this. 

First, it can be incredibly difficult. It is hard to just not be in the office at 3 pm every afternoon. You could modify your lunch to avoid the sugar crash and reduce the power of the trigger by removing one element, but the other parts of the trigger will still be at work.

In general, completely avoiding a trigger is challenging.

Secondly, when you find yourself in the same situation after not encountering it for a while, those same urges will almost certainly still be there.

You may also have heard that the best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. This is good advice.

Strategies for Building Habits

When it comes to building new habits, we want to create both a trigger and a reward for the activity, as these are what is necessary to move the urge to complete the behavior from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind.

Creating Rewards

Let’s start with reward. A lot of the new habits that you will want to create will have a natural reward. 

Do you want to exercise more? Exercise releases endorphins which makes you feel happy. 

Do you want to call your family more often? Speaking to loved ones also releases happy hormones. 

Do you want to turn your smartphone off one hour before you go to bed so that you sleep better? You’ll feel better in the morning, but your brain might struggle to associate that delayed reward with the initial act, at least at first.

If you want to create new habits that don’t have an immediate reward, it can be useful to create an artificial reward. For example, give yourself a piece of dark chocolate after you turn off your smartphone. It’s tasty, it’s a little energy boost, and it will make you feel good. Rewards don’t have to be big to be successful.

It is also not as though you will need to continue with that reward forever. 

How did you develop the habit of brushing your teeth? 

The reward was probably praise given to you by your parents as a child. But you still have the habit of brushing your teeth today without the associated praise. When it comes to this kind of subtle mental reward, the brain doesn’t always actually need the physical reward to give itself the little hormonal reward that it already associates with the act.

Build habit by rewards, how to build habits, how to form habits
To Build Habits, Start with Rewards | Image Source 

Creating Triggers

Creating triggers can be more complicated. It would be pretty challenging to carry around a perfume that smells like french fries and then smell it before you consciously decide to order a salad, in the hope that the smell of french fries will become the trigger for craving salad (though if anyone has tried that, let us know).

The first thing that you can do is think about triggers when designing your new habit. This does not necessarily mean consciously choosing them - luckily our brains naturally make associations and so can do that for us. 

But if you decide that you are going to start exercising, it is not a good idea to go at random times and to random places. You should have a weekly schedule for what time you will go, where you will go, and what you will do.

When you have your schedule, you will choose to do these actions. But our brains naturally look for associations, and will naturally start to associate 7 am on Monday mornings with going to the gym, and 6 pm on Wednesday nights with going to yoga. Your brain will find patterns and find triggers, eventually integrating this behavior into your habits.

The other option is something called habit stacking. This can mean doing this habit at the same time as you do something else that is habitual. For example, you can floss when you brush your teeth, and then give yourself a reinforcing reward (probably not chocolate), so that flossing becomes associated with the same triggers as brushing.

Another option is to replace old habits with new habits. We already talked about this in the section on breaking habits. 

Identify the trigger of the habit to be replaced. Use this awareness to move the decision to act into your conscious mind so that you can choose to complete your alternative action. Then make sure you are getting a nice tangible reward in order to outweigh the reward that your brain is already expecting from the existing action.

SEE ALSO: Why Resolutions Fail, and How to Ensure Yours Succeed

Summary: Using the Habit Cycle

Habits are by definition unconscious behavior, but we often consciously choose to try and take control of the habits in order to make changes in our lives. In order to do this successfully, we need to understand that habits are more than just repetitive actions. We repeat these actions for a reason.

The actions are part of a cycle that includes a trigger and a reward. A trigger to tell our subconscious brain that it is time to complete the action, and a reward to make the action desirable.

Thus, when it comes to making or breaking habits, we cannot just focus on changing our actions, we also need to look at controlling our triggers and rewards.

Once you start to build habits, it's good to keep track of your progress to stay motivated and make proper adjustments for improvements. That's how leaders not only establish but also level up their habits.

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